Older drivers raising worries in Iowa

Families, DOT work to balance road safety, driver independence

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Jan Anthony, 58, using a cane to steady herself, follows a uniformed driver’s license tester around the long line of people at the front of the driver’s license station in northeast Cedar Rapids.

As she comes upon her mother, Faye Birky, 81, seated in the waiting area, she smiles. “I passed.”

Yes, Anthony was relieved. Even though arthritis and fibromyalgia force her to use a cane, she figured she’d fill out paperwork, have her picture taken, pass her eye test and pay $20 to renew her Iowa license for another five years. She didn’t expect an official to require that she prove she could still drive.

“It was a big surprise,” she says. “Your initial thought is, ‘I’ve got to take the driving test,’ not that I didn’t think I could take it. It was OK. I passed. No problem.”

But, if Anthony had lost her license, she wouldn’t be able to drive her mother around on errands. Her mother wouldn’t have been able to drive, either, having given up her license nearly two years ago at the request of her children.

“I have a memory problem,” Birky says. “Alzheimer’s.”

This Cedar Rapids daughter and mother, baby boomer and senior citizen, symbolize what’s happening on the nation’s roadways. Today, about 34 million drivers are 65 years old or older. By 2030, the federal government projects, 57 million drivers will reach this standard retirement age. That’s about one-fourth of all drivers.


The concerns of this aging driving public are wide-ranging, not the least of which is the safety of all motorists. So, earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration initiated some solutions. Among them would be requiring that each state have a program to improve older driver safety, protecting doctors from lawsuits if they report medical conditions that prohibit a senior citizen from driving and the requirement that driver’s licenses be renewed in person.

While some states are more lax than others, Iowa does require drivers 70 and older to renew their licenses every two years, instead of the standard five years. And license issuers are always on the lookout for potential problems.

“When an older driver comes in and we see some need for assistance, we may ask for a driving test,” says Lisa Hennessey, supervisor of the Iowa Department of Transportation driver’s license station in Cedar Rapids. “We’ll check their medical reports, recommendations from doctors ...”

The result, she says, is that the IDOT does its best to accommodate older drivers, even sending testers for on-site road tests in small towns where they live if they’re not used to driving in a city such as Cedar Rapids. The IDOT also can implement restrictions, such as limiting a driver to certain hours of the day or specific neighborhoods.

“We know that some older people will take the back roads,” Hennessey says. “They do a good job of restricting themselves.”

Patricia Jones of Marion, who turned 87 on Dec. 6, knows that she’ll reduce her driving even as she renewed her license.

Last May, she drove the 120 miles to Des Moines to visit her daughter, Susan Grant, but for Thanksgiving had her daughter come to Marion to pick her up and take her back to Des Moines.

“I get a little nervous out there on the freeway,” admits Jones, who drives a 2004 Dodge Neon. “There’s a lot of trucks out.”

AARP driver safety classes, for drivers over 50, can help allay some of those fears, says Larry Neppl of Marion, former coordinator of the Iowa driver safety programs and an instructor the last decade.

The four-hour AARP course, held periodically throughout the year in a variety of locations, covers all of the basics, from being a good defensive driver to avoiding distractions while driving (cellphones, texting, navigation systems, etc.) to the use of updated safety technology.

“All these things are important in good defensive driving,” Neppl says, adding his mantra, “You need to expect the unexpected.”

Overall, he says, older drivers have become better drivers, citing a study that shows they’re only about 16 percent more likely to cause a crash than drivers ages 25 to 64. He attributes that to better overall health, improved safety devices in vehicles such as backup cameras and lane change warning beepers, and the education of older drivers, many of whom may not have been required to take driver’s education when they learned to drive.

As an example, he says his mother-in-law simply paid a quarter for her driver’s license when she was 16 and never had to take a driving test into her 80s.

So, should older drivers be required to take a driving test when they reach a certain age? Or, after they’ve been involved in an accident?

“I’m not sure it should be only older drivers,” Neppl says.

Jones, who won’t be driving to Des Moines so often, agrees. “I’ve seen some people out there I don’t really think should be behind the wheel,” she says. “I’d hope I’d know when I’d get that way.”

For Birky, who accompanied her daughter to the driver’s license station, the decision to give up her license resided in the back of her mind until March, 2011, when her children paid her a visit.

“You still would be driving if we hadn’t said something,” says Anthony, her daughter, who recalls that night. First, her brother and then her sister couldn’t get the words out, so she had to speak. “We don’t think you should be driving, Mom,” she finally said.

Birky thought about it for a minute, then agreed.

“I never had an accident,” she says. “I was never picked up for anything. Why not quit while I’m ahead? I realized how fortunate I’ve been.”

Not everyone so easily gives up the car keys, which is why AARP has an online program free of charge called “We Need to Talk.” It explains in three parts how to determine if an older person should give up driving and how to break the news.

But, as Neppl says, age alone isn’t the determining factor. Health, experience and self-confidence also play a role.

“From my experience,” laughs Bob Schillig, 83, of Robins, “I think I could tell them what to do.”

Even though he wears no-line bifocals, he tried the eye exam without them. He still maintains his pilot’s license, which is has more stringent physical requirements than a driver’s license, and flies his Fairchild PT-19 trainer airplane. He owns a fleet of old cars and three years ago drove a Ford Model A to Texas.

“There are some older drivers who shouldn’t be driving,” Schillig says with a smile. “They aren’t as quick on the draw as I am.”

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