A high accident rate among older drivers in Maine has safety experts concerned

Sun Journal photo illustration

Part 1 of a two-part series. Look for the second part on Oct. 1.

AUBURN — It was June 29, and James and Edie Chouinard of Auburn were in Portland, driving south on 295 on their way to celebrate their 26th anniversary.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

James and Edie Chouinard of Auburn escaped serious injury June 29 when a wrong-way driver on I-95 in Portland was stopped by Maine State Police Trooper Douglas Cropper parking his cruiser across the highway. The elderly driver crashed into the trooper's vehicle instead of crashing head-on into the Chouinards' car.

The facts about mature drivers

Nationally, drivers 65 and older account for 16 percent of all drivers, and 8 percent of all miles driven, but account for 17 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2010, according to TRIP, a national transportation research group.

Maine has 189,000 licensed drivers 65 and older, about 20 percent of all drivers, according to the Maine Secretary of State's Office. However, 22 percent of fatal crashes in Maine involved drivers 65 and older in 2010, according to TRIP.

Maine Department of Transportation data show drivers over 65 also experience more crashes per mile driven than any age group except 16-year-old drivers.

Furthermore, the crashes are 1.7 times more likely to lead to serious injury or death than with drivers age 25 to 65. The reasons for this, according to MDOT, include that older drivers have diminishing physical, sensory and cognitive capabilities, and they're usually more fragile.

For more information visit the section on mature drivers facts and recommendations in Maine's Strategic Highway Safety Plan.

Suddenly they saw the flashing blue lights on Maine State Police Trooper Douglas Cropper's vehicle. The police cruiser was stopped across the lanes on the interstate.

“I told my wife, 'Slow the heck down!'” James said. She slammed on the brakes. Their Mercury Marquis fishtailed before coming to a screeching stop, missing the police car.

At the same time, an elderly man — driving toward them — crashed into the cruiser. The man, 88, was going the wrong way on the interstate.

James Chouinard, 53, said he never saw the driver who was headed toward them. “If it wasn't for that trooper, we'd be gone. We would have hit that guy going 65 mph.”

Instead, no one was injured. As the couple looked at the smashed vehicles operated by the elderly man and the trooper, “I started crying,” Edie Chouinard, 52, said. “We all would have died.”

Cropper put himself at risk to stop the driver, she said. “He is a hero.”

Cropper said he was on a routine traffic stop in Portland that afternoon when he got a call about the wrong-way driver. From where he was stopped, he could see cars pulling over on I-95, getting out of the way of the driver. The trooper raced onto the interstate to get ahead of the driver, passing cars with his siren blaring.

"I had to go pretty fast," Cropper said. "I was northbound in the southbound lane for about half the way" to get to the man.

After he stopped the wrong-way driver, he asked him, “Why didn't you take an exit?"

"What exit?” the man said to Cropper.

"Did you think about stopping?" Cropper asked.

The man gave no answer.

The man told police he was all done driving. The state police sent an adverse driving report to the Secretary of State's Office, recommending the man's license be reviewed. On Aug. 2 the state took away his license.

More accidents among the elderly

The majority of drivers 65 and up are good drivers, cautious and courteous, according to police. “They're part of the generation that has a lot more respect for others,” Auburn police Chief Phil Crowell said.

But research shows older motorists are involved in a disproportionately high share of traffic deaths.

Nationally, drivers 65 and older account for 16 percent of all drivers and 8 percent of all miles driven, but account for 17 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2010, according to TRIP, a national transportation research group.

Maine has 189,000 licensed drivers 65 and older, about 20 percent of all drivers, according to the Maine Secretary of State's Office. However, 22 percent of fatal crashes in Maine involved drivers 65 and older in 2010, according to TRIP.

Maine Department of Transportation data show drivers over 65 also experience more crashes per mile driven than any age group except 16-year-old drivers.

Furthermore, the crashes are 1.7 times more likely to lead to serious injury or death than drivers age 25 to 65. The reasons for this, according to MDOT, include that older drivers have diminishing physical, sensory and cognitive capabilities, and they're usually more fragile.

Safety and transportation officials are aware of the statistics. In 2011 a Maine Strategic Highway Safety Plan recommended upgrading older driver screening by 2013 and making senior transportation more available. So far in Maine and the nation, however, systemic changes have not been implemented to improve safety among older drivers.


On July 17 at 2:45 p.m., a 90-year-old Auburn woman was driving on the Veterans Bridge from Auburn to Lewiston when she suddenly crossed the center line, crashing head-on into a vehicle driven by a woman with three children. Authorities initially feared there would be fatalities; ultimately two adults and three children were treated at local hospitals.

The elderly driver told police she “did not know where she was” after getting gas at BJ's. All she knew, she said, was “she needed to make two left turns in Lewiston to get her husband's medications.”

Recent changes in traffic patterns leading onto the bridge, even if they're “well signed,” can lead to confusion, especially among elderly drivers, Auburn police Chief Phil Crowell said.


In Maine, a growing challenge

With an aging generation of baby boomers reaching retirement age and a growing population of people 65 and older nationally, safety among older drivers is becoming a greater concern among health and safety officials.

Maine is now the oldest state in the nation, with a median age of 42.7, topping Florida, with a median age of 40.7, according to the U.S. Census.

“We're living longer than ever before,” said Katherine Freund, president of the Independent Transportation Network of America, a nonprofit group started in Portland. ITN provides rides to seniors. Freund started the group after her little boy was struck and injured by an elderly driver.

Nationally, 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 every day. That will continue for 18 years, she said. “That's the wave everyone is talking about. People are outliving lots of systems,” including transportation.

But responding to the challenge of safety among elderly drivers has been tricky.

In Maine, the only additional requirement as drivers age is vision testing. Beginning at 62, vision is checked at every license renewal, which occurs every four years — instead of six — once a driver turns 65.

The only time road tests are given is when an individual's doctor suggests it, or there's an adverse report filed by police on the driver, Megan Sanborn, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's Office, said.

Some experts say change is needed, including road testing for license renewals for older drivers. But that has proved to be difficult politically. In the 1990s, Maine legislators considered road testing for older drivers.

“I went to the public hearing,” said Kathryn Pears, the former director of the Maine Chapter of Education and Public Policy for the Alzheimer's Association. “There were 200 seniors in there, all concerned with increased scrutiny.”

The proposal went down in flames. “We need to revisit the issue,” Pears said. To that end, a summit on the issue involving all stakeholders has been scheduled for November by the Secretary of State's Office.

Freund supports road testing for age 75 and up. She's 62 and plans to stop driving at 75. She'll get rides through the ITN service she created.

But proposing road exams would be a lightning rod for controversy, she added.

Another solution is expanding the services of a network like hers, providing rides that allow seniors to give up driving, she said. "People will do the right thing if they have choices," Freund said.


On July 3 at 11:30 a.m., an 82-year-old Lisbon woman was turning around at Thorne's Corner Auto and Truck Repair on Sabattus Street in Lewiston when her vehicle slammed into a parked van, pushing the van into the building. The driver of the van was trapped until firefighters extricated her. Lewiston police said the Lisbon woman confused the brake and the gas.


How aging influences driving

Driving is a complex task. As we age, changes make driving riskier, experts say.

For most, the day will come when we should no longer drive. “It's only a question of when,” Freund said.

Changes brought on by aging — including slower reaction time and weakened vision — start to negatively influence driving ability as early as age 35, Freund said. Driver experience compensates until about age 75, when, for many, aging “overtakes the benefits of driver experience,” she said, noting that for many, driving especially worsens around 85.

Aging causes most motorists to change their driving patterns. “We stop driving at night because we can't see as well,” Freund said. “We stop driving on the interstate because it becomes difficult to merge into traffic. It becomes difficult to judge the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles.”

Sometimes older drivers come to a dead stop in merging lanes. “They're trying to be careful,” Freund said. “The same when turning left.”

Older drivers often avoid driving in inclement weather. “Raining weather is hard; they lose the ability to understand visual contrast,” Freund said. Being able to divide attention among multiple events transpiring on the road also diminishes. “You see older people slow down so they can process it.”

The aging process also means a reduction in physical abilities for things like turning your head to see if a lane is clear. Also, taking multiple medications, which is common among older citizens, can slow reaction time. These kinds of changes “happen to everybody,” Freund said.

On top of that, there's dementia, added Pears, who works with families and police at her Dementia Care Strategies in Brunswick.

The majority of older drivers don't have dementia. At age 65, 13 percent have dementia; by age 85 the number rises to 45 percent, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Pears said dementia is often responsible for things like confusing the gas and the brake, driving the wrong way on a highway and putting the vehicle in "drive" instead of "park." “It's related to confusion, visual and perceptual changes,” she said. “Dementia causes damage in the brain. It changes how people react.”

If most people were to get on the interstate headed the wrong way, “we wouldn't have to go too far to know something was wrong,” Pears said. “We'd pull over and at least stop.”

But people with dementia may not see vehicles around them. “I work with law enforcement officers who've said they've tried to stop an elderly driver,” Pears said. “They had their sirens and lights blaring. The drivers said they weren't aware of the police car.”

People with dementia often aren't aware they shouldn't be driving; it usually takes the intervention of family members, a doctor or police to convince them otherwise, she said


On Aug. 25 in Westmoreland, N.H., a vehicle driven by an 87-year-old man crossed the center line and drove into a procession of oncoming motorcyclists, killing two riders. The bikers who died were 59 and 41 years old. Five others were injured. The procession was part of the annual “Ride for the Fallen,” honoring Army Spc. Justin Rollins, who was killed in Iraq in 2007. The elderly driver told police at the scene he couldn't explain why he turned and ran into the motorcycles. The man died from injuries a few days after the crash.


Time to give up the keys?

Anna Faucher, 92, of Lewiston gave up driving last year at age 91.

It wasn't because she was in an accident. "I wasn't comfortable driving," she said recently, as she played cribbage with Lewiston seniors at the Lewiston Memorial Armory. "I was afraid of getting in an accident."

She gets rides from her son. Her friend, Betty Ames, 77, also gives her rides to card games. When seniors should stop driving "is an individual thing," Ames said. "You can be 80 and do good." Others need to stop. "It depends."

Wrestling with when to stop driving “becomes a challenge for us and families,” Auburn Chief Crowell said. “Driving is the last piece of independence an elderly person has to get groceries, go to the doctor's and visit friends.”

Other than some city bus service, elderly transportation "is a huge unmet need" in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, said Koriene Lowe, director of transportation for Community Concepts.

Police work with families, “especially after a bad crash,” Crowell said. There have been times that the Auburn Police Department has written letters to the Secretary of State's Office “recommending this person's license be withdrawn. That's extreme,” Crowell said. “We don't do it often.”

His officers use their judgment, the chief said. “When we're investigating a crash, we're pulling that person's history.” If there seems to be a lot of crashes lately, they'll begin investigating why and try to determine if the driver should stop. Often seniors give up driving themselves, Crowell said.

When police do write to the Secretary of State's Office suggesting a person's license be reviewed, they typically have the family's support, Crowell said.

“Sometimes we have family members who come in and say, 'Can you do it so we don't have to?' Sometimes it's near misses, not crashes, that brings up their concern,” he said.

Like police, Pears meets with families worried that their aging friend or loved one may no longer be safe driving. Families are looking for help, she said.

It's a tough subject, Pears acknowledged, but noted that driving is a privilege, not a right.

One question Pears asks family members: “'Would you let your grandchild ride with this person?' If someone hesitates for a second, you have your answer.”

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

Part one of a two-part series. Tomorrow: Area seniors talk about why some of them stopped driving and whether additional tests should be given to drivers as they age. Plus, how to know when it's time to give up the keys, and how the Independent Transportation Network works.

Senior Driving Summit Nov. 2 in Augusta

Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers is calling for a daylong "Senior Driving Summit" Nov. 2 at the Augusta Armory based on serious, high-profile crashes involving elderly drivers and research highlighting the correlation between aging and accidents.

The event will be sponsored by the Secretary of State's Office and AAA. The stakeholders — including seniors and family members, policy makers, law enforcement officials, physicians and care givers — will talk about the challenges of senior driving and the lack of transportation alternatives in much of Maine, said Secretary of State spokeswoman Megan Sanborn.

Changes in laws could come from the forum, but Summers isn't recommending any at this time, Sanborn said. On July 23, the Bangor Daily News reported that Summers was beginning an exploratory process that could lead to changes in driving laws in regard to elderly motorists, but Sanborn later said Summers is only calling for the summit.

Summers is the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Olympia Snowe. Independent Angus King and Democrat Cynthia Dill are also vying for the seat.

To register for the Senior Driving Summit on Nov. 2, call 780-6988 or email rhudon@nne.aaa.com. The forum will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Augusta Armory on Western Avenue. There is no fee to attend; lunch is provided.

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Comments

Steve  Dosh's picture

ed. 12.09.30 19:50 hst Good

ed. 12.09.30 19:50 hst
Good article
" Maine has 189,000 licensed drivers 65 and older, about 20 percent of all drivers, " and , as we all know , driving accidents are the major cause of death for our teenagers in these very u s of a . The old folks should get free rides when ever and where ever they need them ( within reason ) and , not only that , so should teens , especially if they have been drinking
Driving represents independance and we all have a love affaire with cars
You really have one million drivers in ME ? /s Steve
http://www.aarp.org/home-garden/transportation/info-05-2010/dsp_article_...

 's picture

Elderly Drivers in Maine or anywhere

I personally feel that after any person reaches age 80 they should no longer be driving under any circumstances. Their reflexes aren't as good, and often their minds aren't as good either. After any person reaches 80 it's time to stop driving and hang up the keys. For their safety and everyones safety.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Another campaign to make life

Another campaign to make life just a little tougher for the elderly. I, personally, would prefer to have an 80 year old driving behind me or coming towards me than a 16, 17, or 18 year old. At least with the 80 year old, there's a good chance they won't be high on pot or texting; or both.

 's picture

YES!!!

We need to revisit how licenses are renewed as we get older. None of us would like to have our license revoked BUT I don't want to be responsible for killing someone if I can no longer drive safely and I may not be in a position to make that judgement objectively at some point in my future. To me, one of the worst things that can come from aging is losing my license and thereby losing my independence, so I am not saying this lightly. We all need to have driving tests in addition to vision checks annuallly after a certain age. There needs to be ample affordable and flexible transportation for people who can no longer drive themselves around as well. I have been the victim of a crash caused by an elderly woman who admitted that she really couldn't see on the day of the crash, "the sun was in her eyes." She plowed into me as I was stopped at a red light in front of Roopers on Main St. in Lewiston, then bounced off my Dodge Caravan and into the side of the car stopped in front of me. I had substantial damage to my vehicle, as did the elderly driver and the other person she hit. We were all very lucky that day that no one was hurt. I was angry and knew that she should NOT have been driving at her age and in her condition. I read about all the crashes lately caused by elderly drivers and it is very obvious that something needs to change immediately!

FRANK EARLEY's picture

I've experienced this as has many of my freinds......

I don't know many people who have driven trucks more than ten years, who haven't encountered an elderly driver either driving the wrong way or trying to pass under their truck, When I was nineteen I ran over a brand new Cadillac, with 59 miles on it and an eighty four year old woman at the wheel. Evidently she confused the space between my trailer wheels and my drive wheels, as a place to enter the "Central Artery" in Boston. That was just the first.
The most difficult driver I ever had to deal with was my own, eighty five year old, father. He had driven all his life and never had an accident or received a ticket. One thing that made it, both hard and easy to see what needed to happen was the fact that I only visited occasionally. My brothers and sisters saw him on a daily basis, this makes gradual changes hard to notice. On one visit, I saw his brand new "Park Avenue", the passengers side was all dented and scraped. I asked him what happened, He told me he hit the side of an old stone bridge just up the street from his house. A bridge he'd been traveling over for twenty plus years. That was my first " red flag". Evidently,as I later learned, that wasn't the first time. My brothers and sisters never connected the fact that he had all these small dents and scratches, he couldn't or wouldn't explain, with his ability to safely drive his car. Fortunately he voluntarily gave up driving a short time later. It was as hard for us as it was for him.
The state retesting is helpful in reducing impaired driving, but it's far from fool proof. Take notice of a relatives vehicle, it can be as clear as a book, as to how a person is driving. If you start seeing unexplained dents and scratches, GET INVOLVED, I would rather deal with an angry relative, or put up with a cold shoulder for a few weeks, than have to go identify a body at the morgue.

Robert McQueeney's picture

There is no real screening at licensing

Having recently moved back tot he state of maine, I needed to get a valid Maine driver's license. I was working in Kennebunk at the time, so I headed over to the local licensing bureau. As I was driving in, to park out back, I noticed an elderly couple in a larger car at the handicapped spaces up front. He was attending to her as she gingerly got out of the car. One of those nice scenes one hopes to see every now and again.

I took a moment to take care of a couple cell calls while I was parked and then headed inside. About the same time, this same elderly couple is just sitting down, it being very apparent that she was not very ambulatory, he was helping her all the way. Their number was called before mine and I was surprised to see that it was she who had come in to re-new her license.

She could barely move, and had very little, if any, reflex ability; a trait that is needed from time to time when driving, certainly in emergency situations. The man behind the counter did all he could to get her a new driver's license, speaking loud and clear to her, explaining all she had to do, waiting patiently while she went over to the camera for a new photo. I am certain that he made her day that day.

I was too shocked to say anything about it at the counter, I just got my license. This was not a woman who needed her license, he apparently drove her everywhere and attended to her very well. But she should not have been issued a license. She could barely walk and had almost no reflex ability. Absolutely nothing in place for such a situation.

I certainly hope maine puts something in place to weed out people such as this from getting driver's licenses. I am aware that indeopendence is important, but so is safety, especially the safety of others around you affected by your actions.

RAYMOND FRECHETTE's picture

Elderly drivers

A suggestion is that all persons over a certain age have an annual doctor's physical and be evaluated for both physical and mental abilities. Dementia, which is mentioned as a cause several times in this article, could be detected and treated early and prolong a persons alert time in life. Dementia sneaks in on a person and is not always visible to an untrained observer. Dementia and physical limitations would be a better gauge of a person's ability to drive than age. Doctors could be made responsible to report to the Secretary of State those who should be further screened.

Also, meetings by groups such as AAA and politicians to review laws and policies on elder care should be held when the active elderlies are in Maine, and not in November or winter when we have gone to warmer climes.

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