Byline: Dana Treen, Times-Union staff writer
When Mary Wenig read about elderly drivers in California and Florida who lost control of their cars and plowed into marketplace crowds, it gave weight to something her daughters wanted her to do.
So the 75-year-old Amelia Island resident recently took a battery of tests to measure her vision, strength and ability to react in driving situations.
"That's very scary," Wenig said of separate accidents that killed 10 people in California and injured several at a Flagler Beach flea market. "I say to myself, 'I wouldn't do that.' I guess there is a possibility that you really lose it."
As people age, skills needed for driving dull, said law enforcement officials and those who study older drivers.
At the same time, a new report shows Florida leads the nation in the number fatalities among drivers older than 70 and that there are more older drivers on the road.
Florida drivers older than 70 were involved in 22,512 crashes in 2001, and nearly 1.9 million residents older than 70 have driver's licenses, according to the Highway Patrol.
Census figures from 2000 show Florida residents older than 65 make up 17.6 percent of the population, the highest percentage in the nation. Only California, with more than twice the population, has more residents older than 65.
Wenig, who paid $270 for a three-hour examination, passed the evaluation that included a driving test but said she is acutely aware that skills can diminish incrementally.
"That's the problem," she said. "When does that happen?"
Lt. Bill Leeper of the Florida Highway Patrol said the youngest drivers have more accidents but older drivers pose special concerns. Their reaction times and eyesight, for example, are not always sharp, he said.
"Driving is a demanding activity that requires concentration at a lot of levels," he said.
Leeper, who conducted roughly 200 safe driving talks on a broad range of subjects last year, said about 20 percent of the focus was on issues affecting elderly drivers.
"There are things people tend to forget over time and need to be reminded," he said.
The Road Information Program, a non-profit traffic research group supported by road builders, released an evaluation of federal accident data that said more older drivers are on the road. The report also found that older drivers are more vulnerable in driving situations such as intersections and where left-hand turns require quick judgments about speed, distance and gaps.
The number of Americans age 70 and older killed in traffic crashes increased by 27 percent between 1991 and 2001 -- from 2,494 to 3,164, the report noted. In the same span, overall vehicle fatalities increased only 2 percent.
In the same 10-year span, the the number of licensed drivers age 70 and older increased 32 percent nationwide. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show 268 drivers older than 70 died in Florida in 2001, more than in California or New York, where populations are greater.
For older drivers on the road, there are ways to measure ability and sharpen skill levels.
Individuals can pay for an evaluation, as Wenig did, or attend classes by the Highway Patrol, the AARP, the Northeast Florida Safety Council or others offering instruction.
Through July, the AARP in Northeast Florida has conducted 70 two-day driver safety programs and graduated 1,480 participants in the region covering Duval, Clay, Baker and Nassau counties, said Bernie Loonam, an assistant state coordinator with the program. For $10, the classes for drivers 50 and older cover topics such as vision and hearing changes, effects of medication, reaction time, new laws and driving situations. Completion of the AARP course or similar courses can result in a reduction in insurance premiums.
Peggy Gannon, the therapeutic recreation specialist at Brooks Rehabilitation who evaluated Wenig, checks range of motion, coordination, vision and depth perception and does a driving evaluation. …