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In ‘Old People Driving,’ Handing Over the Keys Means the End of the Road

August 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In "Old People Driving," filmmaker Shaleece Haas examines how aging Americans can balance safety and independence as the ranks of drivers 85 and older surpasses 3 million. This excerpt is part of The Economist Film Project series of independently produced films aired in partnership between The Economist and the NewsHour.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: And now to another in our economist film project series.

Tonight’s documentary is called “Old People Driving.”

According to the American Automobile Association, AAA, 37 million Americans will be 65 or older by the year 2020. And at least 90 percent of them will still be licensed to drive.

Filmmaker and journalist Shaleece Haas looks at two elderly drivers who are approaching the end of their driving years and facing the loss of independence that comes with turning over their keys.

Here’s an excerpt from her film.

MILTON CAVALLI, 96 years old: My name is Milton Cavalli. Next month, I will be 97. I have been driving for about 89 years. I think I’m beginning to learn how to do it now.

SHALEECE HAAS, filmmaker: This is my grandfather. I have been a passenger in his car since I was a kid, so it never occurred to me there was something strange about him driving, until he went to renew his license last year. The new one expires on his 100th birthday.

MILTON CAVALLI: I feel some people that ride with me figure, due to my age, they’re a little bit apprehensive about my driving, keep directing me which to go, this way, that way, turn here, look out for that light there.

I know all these things. I’m driving. I see them. Nobody has to tell me about them. When they do that, I figure they figure I can’t figure out there’s a stoplight ahead of me or something. When that comes to be, I’m not driving anymore.

(COUGHING)

HERBERT BAUER, 99 years old: I’m Herbert Bauer, and I’m still 99, but not much longer.

I have driven a car for about 80 years. And it’s about time to change, before somebody invites me to change.

(HORN HONKING)

HERBERT BAUER: I have been driving without any accident for so long, and I wouldn’t want to spoil my record. So I will try something else for a while.

SHALEECE HAAS: Will you miss your car?

HERBERT BAUER: I plan to, yes.

SHALEECE HAAS: Herbert and my grandfather are among the oldest drivers on the road, but they’re not alone. Today, there are three million drivers over 85. And, as the population ages, their ranks are growing.

JULIO LACAYO, California DMV: There’s this myth that senior drivers are the worst drivers. That’s a myth. It’s not true, and statistics clearly show that the age group that we should be more concerned with is the youth group.

SHALEECE HAAS: Older people are more likely to cause an accident than other adult drivers. But young people under 25 are by far the riskiest drivers on the road. Teenagers are also more likely to kill other people when they crash. But older drivers, with their fragile bodies, are mostly a danger to themselves.

JULIO LACAYO: As we age, our vision, our hearing, our reflexes deteriorate. And the first advice I give everyone is, don’t wait for others to have to intervene and take away those keys.

HERBERT BAUER: In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be 100. And, statistically, it is, of course, increasingly dangerous to drive. I presume, for a while, I feel helpless.

And the fact that I plan to feel helpless may protect me from feeling that way. But once I quit driving, I do not presume to resume it. I take my last drive, I hand over my keys, and walk home.

SHALEECE HAAS: As in most states, California drivers over 70 have to renew their license in person every five years. They take a vision test and a knowledge test. But they don’t necessarily have to prove themselves behind the wheel.

KENT MILTON, (RET.) California Highway Patrol: There really is no test that’s perfect, because people develop problems that interfere with driving at different times. We can’t rely just on DMV to sort these people out. The culture should be saying to families, you have a responsibility, too, if you think someone in your family is a problem, of doing something about it.

WOMAN: When do you step in and take away someone’s independence? And I think, in our family, particularly, freedom and independence is a very high value for all of us.

If my father’s faculties diminish and he truly becomes a danger on the road to himself and others, I would do everything in my power to try and stop it. And if he agreed, that would make it a whole lot easier. But if he didn’t agree, it would be frightening, because I don’t know what kind of drastic measures I would have to do to ensure that he wouldn’t drive.

MILTON CAVALLI: If I couldn’t drive, I don’t know what I would do. I have no idea.

MARIE CAVALLI, wife of Milton Cavali: I try not to think of it too much, because it would be kind of sad not to be able to get out, and, you know, with him. I can get out with other people, but it wouldn’t be the same.

MILTON CAVALLI: I just could not sit in a house all day waiting for time. To me, that would be there sitting there waiting to die. And I don’t want to do that. If I was a danger to somebody else or myself driving, then I would quit. But as long as I feel capable and I drive safely, I’m going to do it.

RAY SUAREZ: Many states require vision tests for seniors renewing their licenses, but only Illinois requires senior drivers to take a road test regularly.

You can learn about The Economist Film Project or submit your own film at film.economist.com.