Time to See Older Drivers Through Dry Eyes

“Have you cried at your desk at work yet today? Would you like to?” Time Magazine recently asked, inviting its readers to indulge in emotion on behalf of an Iowa couple whose story went viral last week. Gordon and Norma Yeager died as the result of a car crash, the same way about 630 Americans die per week but with scant media attention. The Yeagers, after seven decades of marriage, passed away holding hands in the hospital.

Norma and Gordon Yeager died following a car crash this month. Photo: ##http://www.timesrepublican.com/page/content.detail/id/543631/Services-scheduled-for-State-Center-couple.html?nav=5005##Times-Republican##

And while this heartwarming story (more about the couple’s sweet life than their sad death) seems unique, it is not. It is quite common for the media to miss the point in stories about crashes involving older drivers.

While we don’t know the medical facts of this particular case, the elderly are more likely to die or sustain debilitating injuries in crashes that would cause less serious harm to younger people. After age 70, drivers are twice as likely to be involved in fatal crashes, per mile driven, as they were when middle-aged; after age 85, they are nine times more dangerous to themselves and others.

Two weeks ago, Gordon Yeager failed to yield at an intersection. He and his wife died. The crash sent another couple to the hospital. Missing from most media reports was the fact that Gordon Yeager “was facing pending action by the Iowa Department of Transportation to have his license removed” at the time.

The media conversation around aging drivers tends to focus on the anguish surrounding the question of when and how to take the car keys from Grandma or Grandpa, but rarely do these stories take us all the way to a family’s decision to do so. In a landscape built for cars and a culture built on the sanctity of independence, it feels horrible to be responsible for circumscribing a loved one’s life. As hinted at by the inconclusiveness of these stories, we often avoid this responsibility. Because there’s more hand-wringing than decision-making going on, it can take several traffic crashes before a driver is barred from the road, whether voluntarily or by family members or the government.

The desirability of extending the driving life of older people is largely taken as a given. Consequently, the media tend to play up assuaging statistics showing that older drivers tend to self-regulate and drive less; they offer non-threatening solutions such as more driver education, more automotive technology, or use of car-based services.

It would be better to focus not on the means — driving the car — but the motive, which is maintaining the mobility that a landscape built around personal vehicles will inevitably deny the aged.

Because driving and cars are bound up with cultural values, emotion rules. The act of getting a driver’s license is infused with the headiness of freedom and individualism, making the denial of one seem to be a loss of these fiercely held ideals. Licensing has been made a rite of passage, making un-licensing nearly a death rite.

But set aside Gram and Gramps for a minute. Set aside even the alarming transformation of 78 million Baby Boomers into Grams and Grampses in the next few decades. What about everybody else? Today, we are all at greater risk of injury and death than we would be if fewer people, young and old, got around by driving. And even if we’re not elderly now, it’s in our own self-interest to get steely-eyed about the future — that is, if we wish to avoid becoming the subject of angst-ridden family conferences and if we wish to avoid being killed (or becoming a killer) just making our way to the supermarket. Instead of looking at stories like the Yeagers’ through the haze of tears, we should focus on what we can do now to ensure that we don’t face the choice of too many seniors: Drive or stay at home.

Some of the steps we can take will be personal, like deciding to make the next move, not the last move, to a home in a walkable area. Or getting and staying fit now so we can safely bike or walk as we age. A whole host of other solutions necessarily involve government, some of which, such as increasing pedestrian safety, can be accomplished quickly and cheaply. Others will take decades to be realized: big changes in how we plan and redevelop our communities and aggressive expansions of transit, intelligently tailored for town and region. Spare the Kleenex please, and let’s get to it. We’re not getting any younger.

Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former investment banker and marketing executive, is co-author, with anthropologist Catherine Lutz, of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives.

  • Motorist

    Nice write-up. I also thought it was bizarre how the mainstream / braindead media played this story last week.

    It’d be one thing if an elderly couple died together of natural causes while holding hands with each other.

    But why in the world did editors and producers think this was such a special, heartwarming and tear-jerky story that an elderly couple died at the same time after getting themselves in a horrible car wreck?

  • Driver

    And not only did they get themselves in a horrible car accident and die, ending a 72-year marriage with tragedy, but they also caused undue pain and hardship for another married couple, Charles and Barbara Clapsaddle. They survived, but Barbara suffered a broken neck and internal bleeding and her family says it will be a “long road” to recovery.  A seven-decade marriage is beautiful and commendable, but causing this kind of suffering for innocent, unrelated people is the real tragedy.

    It is truly amazing how the media has been suckered by the aww-shucks, love story angle of this story and remains blind to the kinds of questions this post brings up.

  • Motorist

    It’s sobering to think about the fact that in the coming years thousands of us are going to be slaughtered by aging, elderly baby boomers behind the wheels of motor vehicles they absolutely should not be driving anymore.

  • Eric McClure

    Anne, great piece.  I saw the original story and the root cause immediately jumped out at me.

    It reminded me of being 10 years old or so, when my parents left my younger brother and me in the care of my 80ish great uncle (whom we both adored), and the terror I experienced riding in the car with him from near-miss to near-miss.  It’s kind of a wonder — and a blessing — that he eventually died of natural causes.

  • Eric McClure

    Anne, great piece.  I saw the original story and the root cause immediately jumped out at me.

    It reminded me of being 10 years old or so, when my parents left my younger brother and me in the care of my 80ish great uncle (whom we both adored), and the terror I experienced riding in the car with him from near-miss to near-miss.  It’s kind of a wonder — and a blessing — that he eventually died of natural causes.

  • Reader

    Great article.  If we have to pass an exam to get a driver’s license, why can’t we require periodic vision/reflex checks after a certain age?

  • Tom

    It would appear that Iowa’s DMV will be asked to explain why they did not pursue this matter in a more timely manner.  Like the police in MA who let the drunk go because he was almost home.  But he managed to kill before that happened, and bankrupt the township with just the civil penalty. 

  • thielges

    Well of course the big problem here is that we’ve constructed our towns and cities with the expectation that everyone will drive everywhere.  That excludes those who aren’t competent behind the wheel.  It affects not only the elderly but also the young as well as some disabled folks too.  It is the reason why the bar is very very low for the DMV to issue a license.  Habitually bad drivers will still get back behind the wheel because it is difficult to hold a job and conduct daily business without a car in most places.

    Few of these people who shouldn’t be driving are doing so just because they want to drive a car.  They simply want to go about their day’s travels and lead a normal life and a car is the most obvious option.

    I’m not holding out hope that our cities will re-engineer the transportation infrastructure in time for the boomers to live a normal life without needing a car.  However I do expect that just as older people make the decision to move to a home without stairs they will also put walkability on their priorities.  That will drive up the demand for homes in walkable neighborhoods, providing something of a market feedback to create more such places.

  • carma

    at some point, driving becomes dangerous for older folks.  one cant deny the fact that the senses start losing it, and driving becomes difficult and a hazard for yourself and others on the road.  how many times have you seen an older folk swerve onto another lane without ever realizing.  after age 75, i think it should be mandatory for a re-exam.

    between older folks driving, and the clueless texters/cell phone folks, i dont know whats more dangerous.

  • Kevin

    Serving our elders is another reason why we need to give people options other than driving, and design communities that don’t require it.

  • Seven

    My 93 year old neighbor, who can barely see over the steering wheel, said he would stop driving, but he doesn’t feel safe crossing the street or riding Muni. Meanwhile, the DMV renews his license.

    To be fair, crossing many streets in SF can be an adventure in car dodging even for the young and nimble. And with the service cutbacks (our line was never restored), Muni is packed full and never on time.On a related note, when my dad developed early onset dementia and had a string of accidents, we tried to take away his car keys. He refused. The DMV got his dementia diagnosis and did nothing.In my experience, it’s impossible in this state to take away someone’s right to drive, even if they are a clear danger to others.

  • Anonymous

    (Sarcasm) The really nice thing about DMVs letting the elderly skate on driving tests and extending their licenses infinitely is the fact that when the elderly kill using a car, they get off scott-free!(Sarcasm)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Russell_Weller

    Weller murdered 10 people with his Buick, and he never spent more than a couple of hours in custody.

  • Joe R.

    This article is merely a microcosm of a much greater problem-namely people being issued driver’s licenses who lack either the judgement and/or the coordination necessary to pilot a multiton hunk of metal at high speeds.  Sure, the elderly come to mind first when one thinks of incompetent drivers, but the truth is upwards of 75% of the population in my opinion is incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle, regardless of how much training they receive.  It really takes a good amount of spatial visualization, coordination, timing, reflexes, and intelligence to drive.  The vast majority of people are lacking in one or more of these areas.  The fact that nearly everyone can move a motor vehicle down a quiet street with no surprises doesn’t mean everyone can drive.  Throw in a few real-world scenarios with little room for error and most will fail even if they’ve been driving for decades.  Add also attitude to the list of what is needed to drive.  The world’s best driver in terms of coordination/handling/judgement will fail miserably if they treat their car like a phone booth, or otherwise fail to focus on the task at hand.

    So how can we fix this?  For starters make driver licensing much more difficult, probably closer to what you might need to be certified for auto racing.  Next, have everyone who is licensed retake the test, allowing them some time to receive appropriate training.  Right off the bat, you’ll get the worst 75% of drivers off the roads for good.  To me it’s irrelevant if things are set up so you can’t function without a car.  Watch how rapidly that will change once 75% can’t drive.  You can start bus service anywhere literally overnight.  The money people formerly spent on cars will go towards public transit, hopefully allowing us to build a first-class system.  And long term communities will be developed with public transit, cycling, and walking in mind.

    It was a horrible decision to set things up so everyone must drive in the first place.  The fact is everyone, indeed most people, really can’t.  And many of those who can’t refuse to accept the fact, continuing to drive regardless of the harm it causes them or others.  We can continue to pretend that dumbing down the driving process to the least common denominator will allow us to be safe, but it hasn’t worked yet.  No matter how easy you make routine drviing, there will always be exceptional situations which require an expert behind the wheel to get out of.

  • Elson Trinidad

    We have a minimum driving age. We need a maximum driving age too.

  • Sean

    The worry I have for seniors in the future is paratransit. Paratransit trips cost around $25 for an agency to provide, and they are mandated by the government. If there isn’t sufficient transit service, we could see a massive trend of cutting fixed route service to pay for paratransit.

  • Sean

    The worry I have for seniors in the future is paratransit. Paratransit trips cost around $25 for an agency to provide, and they are mandated by the government. If there isn’t sufficient transit service, we could see a massive trend of cutting fixed route service to pay for paratransit.

  • Marco Anderson

    I think Tom Vanderbilt summed it up best when he said, “In this country it is too easy to get a driver’s license, and too hard to have it taken away.” 

    This is based on driving being confused with mobility and it is seen as a fundamental economic right.  If you can’t be mobile you can’t participate in any economic transactions, either work or commerce.  This is also why road construction and planning decisions take place in a vacuum.  Road builders do not have to provide a cost benefit analysis relative to any other modes, because driving is seen as a de facto requirement to fully engage in the public sphere. 

  • Khotdish

    The AARP has strong lobbyists that routinely squash legislation regarding additional testing or retests on the basis of “age discrimination”. It will be a long time before we get ourselves out of the “right v. privilege” quagmire surrounding driving. 

  • Andychow

     I don’t feel comfortable with the tone and attitude shown in this article. Elderly drivers are still people like everyone else.

    I know that many older folks drive because they can’t walk well. Driving takes less demand physically than walking or cycling. If they somehow couldn’t drive, it would take a lot of walking (and a lot more time) to replace a fraction of what they could travel by driving. Cycling simply isn’t an option (may be perhaps a tricycle, but not bicycles). A lot of them don’t take transit because accessing transit would be too difficult, and that they don’t want to deal with the crowding that sometimes exist. Many of them don’t like to get look down at (same as disabled folks) by other transit riders because they board slowly or need to use wheelchair lift or ramp to access the vehicle.

    If we were serious on encouraging elderly drivers to give up their keys, we would have to see the issue through their eyes and offer serious alternatives that are dignified. Some of the automotive based solutions that this article criticized are popular because they are dignified. Obviously there needs to be more that just automotive solutions, but I think we need to look outside the box, rather than telling them to ride a bike.

  • Koch

    old jews should not drive…

  • Anonymous

    PRT. Call me a pod person. Just saying.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t mean to detract from the points made in this article, because I think they are valid – for urban dwellers.  The Newsweek article says the collision occurred “near the couple’s home in State Center, Iowa.”  Take a look at State Center, Iowa on a satellite map image and you will see that it is a small town with a walkable grid that looks much as it did 75 years ago, having escaped the transformation to strip malls and parking lots.   Assuming that they lived in town (which is a leap, given how many older Iowans live on farms), you can’t describe this as “a landscape built around personal vehicles.”  Unless by that you mean tractors.

  • thielges

    WhatMakesYouSoSpecial – It isn’t as simple as just looking at a single small town.   State Center hasn’t developed much because all of the regional development went to Marshalltown, ten miles to the east.  So if you’re shopping, going to the theater, doctor, etc. you get in Highway 30 and drive there.Pretty amazing isn’t it?  Big box retail not only sucks the life out of traditional downtowns, it also sucks the life out of towns many miles away.

  • Unless other options are available, people will probably jump in their car.  I’m going to visit my mother, who lives in Florida, in a few weeks.  I need transportation from the airport to her house.  Based on the public transit map provided by the county, it would take me 4 hours plus a 3 mile walk to do a 30 minute drive.

    Food for thought…………………….

  • TN

    As in many agricultural states, the size of farms in Iowa is increasing and their numbers are decreasing. This means that the population living on farms is decreasing. This results in small farm towns losing large chunks of their economic base.

    It isn’t just that regional development is becoming centered in a few towns. In order to be viable, businesses have to congregate in towns that serve a wider region in order to survive and thrive.

    This has been the historical trend all during American history as agricultural technology and economics has changed. Many a small farm town have basically disappeared.

    Those living in and around these towns have to go to other towns to get needed goods and services. Certainly the elderly who can’t drive or shouldn’t be driving are suffering as they are stuck without transportation.

    I used to live in Iowa as a child. It is very different now than what I remember.

  • Crlutz

    Excellent!  Gram

  • Karinvt77

    I would like to thank you for this article. I am the daughter in law of the couple that the Yeager’s put in the hospital. As you can imagine we are very upset with the slant the media has taken on this tragic event. We feel that Norman should not have been driving! Here it is four weeks later and my mother in law Barb is still suffering from her broken and still is unable to do things for herself or return home. This story had given us hope that the rest of the world still has some people that can see this story for what it really is and not a love story!

    Karin Clapsaddle

  • Draykyn2

    thank you for this article; when they said in the hundreds of other stories on this couple “holding hands” that he pulled out in front of a car, I was hoping that someone would tell exactly what happened. (Instead of just the emotional story of the couple). Almost every day someone pulls out in front of me where I have to slam on my brakes to keep from hitting them, the last time it happened I had my child with me so I reported them to Highway patrol with their tag number; my tires left black marks on the highway. What’s even more stupid, is that I was the only car they had to wait on to pass, there wasn’t anyone behind me. It’s sad that he hurt someone else, and that they paid for their mistake in the worst way, but they are lucky he didn’t kill anyone else because I’m not so sure their story would have been so popular…

  • Thaabaleal

    Thank you for this article. As the son of the other couple I have been trying to get answers to this same question. We are upset that the Yeager’s get world wide media attention, while everyone fails to mention that he did not even slow down for the stop sign. My mother is recovering from a broken neck that, Thank God, did not paralyze her, and now 10 weeks later we find that a bone in her wrist was also broken. I have been trying to get answers to why this couple was allowed to continue driving from the stand point of the family, state and insurance companies who all thought he should continue to drive.

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