Risk or rarity? Despite high-profile crashes, senior drivers not seen as danger
A little more than a year ago, a national debate over senior drivers erupted when an 87-year-old drove his Buick LeSabre through a Santa Monica farmers’ market, killing 10 people and injuring 63 others.
Authorities said the July 16, 2003, disaster began when George Russell Weller hit the gas pedal instead of the brake of the car following a fender bender near the market. Weller’s driver’s license was revoked after the crash, and prosecutors filed vehicular manslaughter charges against him.
On Sunday, a similar but far less disastrous situation unfolded in Grass Valley’s Brunswick Basin, where a 91-year-old woman drove her sport utility vehicle through a bench and into the front of Launderland coin laundry. Police said her license was valid to 2008, though authorities have called for a re-evaluation of her driving ability.
Despite the questions raised by the Santa Monica deaths, California has since passed no new laws or guidelines for senior drivers, and local law enforcement officials say instances of collisions caused by senior drivers are few and far between in Nevada County.
“I don’t think it’s an issue that folks should worry about,” Grass Valley Police Capt. Greg Hart said. “I think it is something we should be aware of, and when we notice a family member’s or friend’s ability to drive is being impaired, we need to take appropriate actions.”
As of July, there were 78,795 licensed drivers in Nevada County. Out of all of the drivers, about 19 percent, or 14,804, were older than 65.
About 1 percent, 1,138 drivers, were older than 85; 219 were older than 90.
Despite the county’s relatively large senior population, there are few instances of collisions caused by senior drivers, said California Highway Patrol Officer Greg Thys.
“They seem to come in bunches and go away,” Thys said.
There have been two reported instances in the past two months in which senior drivers pressed the wrong pedal and crashed, including Sunday’s crash.
Fortunately, no one was hurt in the Launderland accident, although there were several people inside the business. The Chevrolet Blazer struck an outside bench, often used by employees from the nearby Ralphs grocery store, and crashed through inside seating where children play in the laundry shop.
The driver, who told Grass Valley police she stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake, will probably lose her license, police said. Her Chevrolet Blazer jumped a curb and crashed through the coin laundry’s glass facade.
She was not ticketed, according to police, because the crash occurred on private property. Her name has not been released.
Hart said the local accident cannot be compared to Santa Monica’s tragedy.
“We are not talking anything as serious as what happened down there,” he said. “It had the potential for being a very serious accident.”
Police have called for a re-evaluation of the woman’s driving ability and ordered her to complete an examination by the DMV. If she does not schedule the evaluation in the next couple of days, her license will be suspended.
The examination will probably include a personal interview, a review of her medical record, eye and written tests, and a driving test, said Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Steve Haskins.
The tests will be no more difficult than those given to any other driver.
“DMV cannot give any tests solely on the basis of age,” Haskins said. “Age has nothing to do with it.”
The woman’s driver’s license, which is valid to 2008, could possibly be suspended, revoked or restricted, he said. There is still a chance she could retain her license.
There is one significant requirement of seniors applying for renewal of their license – they cannot reapply by mail and have to come into a branch to take a vision and written test. However, they do not have to take a driving test.
The second crash in which a senior driver hit the wrong pedal took place Aug. 24 in Penn Valley, Thys said, when a 75-year-old woman was attempting to park near the Holiday Market.
The van she was driving lurched forward, broke through a barricade, struck a few shopping carts, and then a shopper, pinning him against the wall of the store. Luckily, the carts acted as a buffer and took up some of the force from the crash, Thys said. The shopper was not seriously injured.
“He would have been dead had those carts not been there,” Thys said.
The driver in that instance was also required to be re-tested for a driver’s license. Thys said he is not sure about the outcome of the test.
Despite the two recent incidents, officials said that they are not representative of a pattern.
There have been no recent initiatives to make it more difficult for senior citizens to keep their driver’s licenses, said Haskins and Cliff Wagner, chief of staff for Assemblyman Rick Keene, R-Chico.
Wagner said that in the aftermath of the Santa Monica crash, hearings were held on the matter, but no urgent need for change was found.
“There hasn’t been a great deal of movement on the issue,” Wagner said. “No amount of regulation will prevent all accidents.”
He said there are plenty of checks and balances that help to keep the public safe, such as a California Health and Safety code that allows for any doctor who treats a patient who suffers a lapse of consciousness to report the patient for possible driver retesting.
“The provisions go a long way,” he said.
Wagner also said the public has not shown an interest in senior driver safety and that the call from The Union was the first telephone inquiry into the issue Keene’s office had ever received.
“It depends on where you stand,” he said. “If you were standing in the laundromat, you might see it differently.”
Know and go
What: A class to help senior drivers stay safe drivers.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., Oct. 4.
Where: First Baptist Church, 1866 Ridge Road
The discussion is being organized by Area 4 Agency on Aging, a Sacramento-based organization serving seniors and their needs throughout Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties.
Information: (916) 486-1876
On the Net: http://www.a4aa.com
California Department of Motor Vehicles senior driver information
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