August 14, 2001
| BETTY ANN BOWSER: Driving
a car was one of the great joys of Joann Reddy's life.
JOANN REDDY: I was a car lover, you know-- going here in the car, going there in the car.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, Reddy's four grown children got worried. They thought the mix of 79-year- old mom and her automobile was a recipe for disaster.
ANN-MARIE REDDY: She was having some fender benders, and there was, you know, some problems. But we didn't want to be the people to confront her because, you know, she was fiercely independent-- has always been so. So, you know, we didn't want to confront her.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Thousands of adult children face the dilemma every day. They know that taking away the car keys will be devastating to their parents' independence, but letting them drive could have deadly consequences. Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show a 30% increase in the number of seniors who've died in car crashes since 1975. And since the elderly population is expected to double in the next 30 years, the number of seniors killed on American highways is likely to increase at an alarming rate. So Joanne Reddy's daughter, Ann Marie, turned to a program called Drivewise to evaluate her mother and give her the bad news.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How did you feel about that, when they told you that you couldn't drive anymore?
JOANN REDDY: Oh, God, I was devastated, because it's the thing to look forward in America was driving, having a car, you know. That was great.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What's it been like for you, now that you don't drive anymore?
JOANN REDDY: What has it been like?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yeah.
JOANN REDDY: It's a drudge, really, because I have friends who have offered to pick me up, but they live a lot farther away than I do, you know. And I was the one who picked people up and brought them to mass and stuff. I don't do it anymore.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you miss it?
JOANN REDDY: Oh, yeah, terribly. It's like taking an arm away, you know.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last month, 71- year-old George Gifford went to Drivewise to see how Parkinson's disease had affected his driving capabilities.
GEORGE GIFFORD: I think it would be to my advantage to drive, but to do it in a controlled way, and by that I mean...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Social worker Lissa Kapust is one of the directors of the program, which was started four years ago at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital.
LISSA KAPUST: It was clear that we needed to formalize a program that would take the pressure off of not just patients and family members, but physicians, community providers, who would often kind of run up against this question and say, "how do I know if this person is safe to drive?"
SPOKESMAN: Back on the gas again.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Drivewise does comprehensive neurological and occupational therapy testing, and ultimately puts seniors through a road test. Afterwards, the staff recommends whether the elderly person is competent to drive or not.
SPOKESMAN: George, we're going to run into construction here.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: If the decision is no, Drivewise counsels the driver about alternatives, and when an elderly driver doesn't cooperate, Drivewise reports their findings to the state. This comprehensive evaluation takes several days, costs about a thousand dollars, and is often not covered by private insurance or Medicare.
SPOKESPERSON: What we have seen is some deficit in terms of your speed of processing, your motor speed.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Margaret O'Connor does much of the testing for Drivewise. She says getting old can greatly compromise skills necessary for safe driving.
MARGARET O'CONNOR: We do know that vision and the ability to scan the environment in a rapid fashion and integrate new information that is coming in is a central component of safe driving. I mean, driving is a complex skill that really does require very intact vigilance.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Concerned about the growing number of senior drivers, six states now require some kind of additional testing for the elderly. But most states are conflicted about what to do with senior drivers. Many can't even agree on what is the right age to impose requirements, and a number of policy makers worry about age discrimination.
DANIEL GRABAUSKAS: Massachusetts law is very specific that we are not to take age into consideration; we're to focus on ability.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Daniel Grabauskas is the registrar of motor vehicles for Massachusetts.
DANIEL GRABAUSKAS: We have individuals who are 40 years old that ought not to be driving for a number of different reasons, as well as individuals who are 80. So it would be not only cost prohibitive in many cases to just take everybody after a certain age, I think, and run them through some rigorous program, but I'm not even really sure exactly at this point, from even data that I've seen, how effective that would be to get everybody off the roads who ought to be off the roads.
SPOKESMAN: ...But drive the vehicle as you would ordinarily. Use the pedals as appropriate, and everything else.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Joe Coughlin, a scientist and director of the aging lab at the Massachusetts institute of technology, agrees.
JOE COUGHLIN: The science is still out on what is old. For instance, night vision begins to deteriorate in your late 30s. Does anyone want to nominate, say, special testing for the older driver at 37? Flexibility and strength begins to deteriorate in the 50s. So the first thing is, we're not quite sure what an older driver is, and that makes it profoundly difficult to think about testing, and profoundly difficult to think about what kind of policy-- how do you legislate something that is ambiguous?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Coughlin also points to statistics which show that overall, elderly drivers are involved in fewer crashes than young drivers. He says that's because seniors have more experience and usually avoid driving in adverse conditions. And Coughlin thinks that new technology could help older drivers become even safer drivers.
SPOKESMAN: There's a car coming at you.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Currently, he and his colleagues at MIT are using a VW Bug called "Miss Daisy" to test collision avoidance software.
SOFTWARE: Brake, brake. Brake, brake.
SPOKESMAN: That would be a collision warning.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Coughlin says making it possible for the elderly to keep driving isn't just a transportation issue, it's also an issue of health and well being.
JOE COUGHLIN: There is research out there that truly indicates that driving... Ceasing driving or even reducing driving eventually has some impact on mental outlook, you know, quality of life, and eventual physical quality of life.
SPOKESMAN: We'll take a left.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: That's one of the reasons Gifford, a retired surgeon, was so anxious to get an evaluation from Drivewise.
GEORGE GIFFORD: Why do I want to drive? Because I think in general in Parkinson's, it is a gradual process of deterioration, and that's realistic and everybody knows that. Nobody knows how fast you go down that path. But what I want to do is to see a lot of things. And I think the way to do that is to fight it, and to maintain as normal an existence as possible.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ultimately, Drivewise concluded that Dr. Gifford could continue driving, but because of his Parkinson's, he must return in six months for another look.
SPOKESMAN: Let go of the triggers.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Meanwhile, Dr. Gifford says he won't drive on days when he's not feeling well. But that means he will have to rely heavily on his wife, Anisia, to get around, since there are no other transportation options near his rural home. 68-year-old Anisia Gifford says she never realized how much they took driving for granted.
ANISIA GIFFORD: Oh, I don't think that we envisioned, thought that driving in our golden years would be, frankly, a problem. We probably thought that we would be a lot freer, and so it... The golden years haven't been quite as golden as we hoped they would be.
GEORGE GIFFORD: Excuse me. But we really love it out here in Renfield, and so I'd like to live in this house as long as I reasonably can. But you are relying on the automobile more out here. You can't step out to the subway outside.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Giffords' dependence on their car is not uncommon. In many parts of the country, the automobile is just about the only way seniors can get from one place to another. But MIT's Coughlin says policy makers better come to terms with this issue soon.
JOE COUGHLIN: Today, 70% of the baby boom and older population lives in the nation's suburbs and rural areas, basically either where transit is not, or where alternatives to the car are either unreliable or very short supply. We've got to think of how to really reengineer this thing that we call society and urban areas and roads and sidewalks, to facilitate the one in five, and very soon one in four people that will be over 65.
SPOKESMAN: Now, to get a little early warning on what the road ahead holds...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Unfortunately Coughlin thinks it's unlikely that any solutions will come in time for the baby boom generation, when they will face the question of what to do... ( Simulated crashing ) ...When it's time to hang up the car keys.