SOMERSET, Pa. — Ruth Lape of Somerset decided to stop driving in 1999, but it wasn’t because of any limitations that she felt she had.
“It was when we moved to Somerset (from Ohio),” she said. “I prefer not to drive because I don’t know Somerset that well and Somerset drivers don’t use turn signals. I joke they don’t make turn signals in Somerset.”
She started driving when she was 17. She is now 72. Fred Lape, her husband, started driving illegally at 12 or 13. He is now 73 and has no plans to stop driving.
“When my wife tells me to stop, I’ll stop,” he said.
Janet Klink, 74, Somerset, also hasn’t considered when she will stop driving. She drove a school bus for five years and a tractor-trailer for 20 years. She had to drive, she said, because her husband also drove a tractor-trailer and if she didn’t drive her children wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere.
“I guess I’ll stop driving when my kids tell me to stop,” Klink said.
It is that advice from family or from a physician that is key to getting older drivers to turn in their keys. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine said when doctors warn patients, and tell driving authorities, that the older people may be medically unfit to be on the road, there’s a drop in serious crash injuries among those drivers. The study didn’t report if those drivers drove less or drove more carefully when doctors pointed out the risk.
An 88-year-old Somerset woman drove through a wall at the Leiss Tool & Die plant in Somerset on Thursday, injuring two workers just two days after hitting the front of Saylor Motor Co.’s building. No one was hurt in the Saylor Motor accident. Legally there is no upper age limit in Pennsylvania for driving.
“We do not use age as a determining factor (in someone keeping a driver’s license) nor are we allowed to use it,” said Trooper Stephen Limani, spokesman for Troop A, Greensburg. “The issue is if someone is not up to standards. If we run across someone whose skills are deteriorating, we can submit their name (to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) for re-testing. If someone is in a crash, it may be they were traveling in an unfamiliar area or should have a night driving restriction. The one (criterion) that can’t be a factor is age.”
The majority of people who are re-tested are referred by their physicians, he said.
Pamela Kane, press safety officer for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 9, said in this area, many drivers decide on their own to stop driving.
“It’s an individual decision,” she said. “Honestly, with a lot of older drivers, it is self-regulating. People get to the point where they can’t see or have other problems and decide to stop. As we get older, people’s bone density is less. They are more likely to be injured. Even in a minor crash an older person can be severely injured.”
The notion that older drivers are more likely to get in crashes is not borne out by statistics. On average, drivers in their mid- to late-80s have lower crash rates per mile driven than those in their early 20s, according to AAA’s statistics. none of those groups drive as poorly as teenagers — the nation’s riskiest drivers.
Debbie Baker, project director of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, said drivers may sign up for the AARP Driver Safety Class at age 50 and can get a discount on their car insurance beginning at age 55. Some areas also have safe driving programs through AAA. Pennsylvania has a website www.justdrivepa.org that has various recommendations for older drivers.
“I’m at the younger end of the scale, but Tom Brown (the instructor) pointed out about increasing the distance between your car and the car in front of you and I starting applying that advice,” Baker said. “It’s a very beneficial class.”