04/13/07 — Elderly drivers are not top cause of crashes

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Elderly drivers are not top cause of crashes

By Lee Williams
Published in News on April 13, 2007 2:03 PM

Elderly drivers aren't the leading cause of vehicle accidents, but family members who are concerned have options to get an aging parent or grandparent off the road, state officials say.

A string of accidents involving elderly drivers in Wayne County have prompted some to ask just how safe elderly drivers are and what to do if you suspect an elderly relative's driving privileges should be reduced or simply revoked.

Some recent accidents involving elderly drivers have resulted in significant property damage, serious injury or death. Pedal confusion was a prevailing factor in many of the cases, officials say.

In February 2007, Elizabeth Lillian Melton, 87, of Tampa Street, accidentally hit the gas while trying to park and collided into a vehicle on Royall Avenue. Three people were hurt in the accident.

In the same month, Geraldine Harper Sherard, 63, of Susan Circle, drove into the glass window at the U.S. Post Office in downtown Goldsboro. Ms. Sherard was hurt in the accident. It was estimated the window could cost about $10,000 to replace, officials said.

In November 2006, Carol Coletrain Lane, 72, of Beston Road, LaGrange was identified as a suspect in the fatal hit-and-run accident of Andy Anderson, 47, of Goldsboro. Ms. Lane was found two days later. When questioned, she told authorities she thought she hit a sign.

In October 2006, an elderly woman crashed into Eckerd on Berkeley Boulevard. In the same month, an elderly man crashed into Best Gas on U.S. 117 Alternate, Dudley.

In September 2006, Larose Whaley Caison, 80, of Live Oak Drive, crashed into the glass window at Quality Cleaners on Wayne Memorial Drive seriously injuring the store owner.

In January 2006, Jackie Oliver Godwin, 83, of Perkins Mill Road, drove into the glass window at the U.S. Post Office in downtown Goldsboro.

And the list goes on.

The Goldsboro Police Department has been called to investigate a number of accidents involving elderly drivers.

Capt. Mike West said the issue is increasingly becoming a concern.

However, statewide statistics show elderly drivers are not the leading cause of accidents, said Marge Howell, spokeswoman for the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles.

In 2006, law enforcement officials investigated 75,898 collisions statewide among people 40 and older, according to DOT crash reports. In 2005, officials investigated 76,106 collisions among people 40 and older.

That means there was a reduction in 2006 in the number of collisions among people 40 and older, Ms. Howell said. The idea elderly drivers are unsafe is not supported by the statistics, she said.

"There just seems to be more accidents with elderly drivers, but, on the whole, the number of accidents among elderly drivers has stayed pretty steady over the past few years," she said.

In 2005, there were 16,896 crashes statewide among people 65 and over. In 2004, there were 17,296 crashes. In 2003, there were 17,662 crashes.

"If anything, it's dropped a little bit," Ms. Howell said.

Ms. Howell said the age group that has the highest number of crashes includes drivers age 25 to 34.

In 2005, there were 81,187 crashes statewide among people 25 to 34. In 2004, there were 85,737 crashes. In 2003, there were 87,026 crashes.

The perception elderly drivers are more of a safety risk is untrue, some officials say.

"I think when you have an elderly driver involved in an accident that people pay attention to that," Ms. Howell said.

Ms. Lane also refutes the idea that she is a safety risk.

Ms. Lane knows that some might say she should lose her license after a recent accident, but she disagrees.

Losing the keys to her car would also mean losing her independence.

"I want to keep my license because I won't have no way to go to church. I won't have no way to get my hair done and go get some groceries," she said.

While the system is not foolproof, the state has parameters in place to catch a driver whose driver skills could be deteriorating -- before it's too late.

Drivers ages 18-54 must renew their driver's license every eight years. Additionally, state officials monitor what contributing factors are identified in crash reports involving elderly drivers.

"If we see a problem with a driver that's medically oriented, involves driver confusion or pain, we would look at them and ask them to come in for a whole exam -- road, vision or sign test," Ms. Howell said. "Depending on the outcome, we can enroll them in the DMV medical program that can require them to have a driver's license exam more frequently. We can also require medical information from their doctor and have it sent to us. We can also have them go to an occupational therapist and have the report sent from that."

Other parameters are also in place to catch elderly drivers before they become a safety risk.

State law mandates drivers age 54 and older to renew their driver's license every five years, unless the driver is enrolled in the DMV medical program, Ms. Howell said.

"We can ask them to come in every six months," she said. "We can tailor it to that person."

She said family members with concerns about the driving ability of an elderly parent or grandparent can also call the DMV and ask that they look into their driving status.

Some people choose to let their family doctor explain to an elderly relative why they need to turn over their keys.

She said special provisions such as the driver can only drive between 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. can also be placed on an elderly parent's license.

"It can be a gradual thing like you're only going to drive during the day because those type of limitations can be put on their driver's license," Ms. Howell said. "There's a menu of things that can be done to work with the driver. Working with the driver might reduce the stress on the family in that situation."