Target 8: Should Michigan test elderly drivers more?

Henry Holstege, a professor emeritus of gerontology, takes Target 8 for a drive and explains how age affects driving ability. (Sept. 30, 2014)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When you hit the road in Michigan these days, you’re sharing it with a lot more elderly drivers.

While statistics show senior driver don’t cause nearly as many accidents as our youngest drivers, they do cause more crashes than other adult age groups.

Michigan already has one of the oldest populations in the country, and people 65 and older are the state’s fastest growing age group.

The state is studying the issues aging drivers present and taking steps to address them. On Monday, state leaders unveiled a new website with resources to help elderly drivers, their caregivers, families, and the many professionals who work with them. The site’s goal is to help seniors stay on the road as long as safely possible and provide critical resources when it’s time to give up the keys for good.

>>Online: Website with resources for aging drivers

The Michigan Department of Transportation has also tweaked signs and road markings to make them easier for seniors to see. The state’s senior mobility work group also researched the impact of those changes, created a strategic plan surrounding senior mobility and hosted two international conferences on the issue.

But when it comes to licensing drivers, Michigan treats people the same whether they’re 30 years old or 100.

One woman is hoping the state will consider changes that would require more frequent testing of drivers after a certain age.

“I think elderly people should be checked more often,” said Karen Adams, whose sister died in a 2013 accident caused by a senior driver. “Not in a Draconian-type way, but they should be checked more often, and you might not catch everyone that way, (but) it gets the family talking and thinking about these things more often perhaps as well.”

Adams was rear-ended by an 85-year-old man as she waited to turn left onto Brown Road from Broadway Street Road north of Hastings. Her vehicle was stopped and her turn signal was flashing. According to the police report, the man was distracted by a tractor farther down the road.

“No one person is distracted that long unless there is something amiss,” Adams said.

At first, everyone in Adams’ car seemed okay, including her sister, 67-year-old Linda McGarry.

“She goes, ‘Oh, look, there’s even glass in my pocket,'” recalled Adams. “So she was conscious and talking.”

But by the time McGarry made it to the hospital, she was in a coma. She never recovered.

“Somebody that’s elderly that does that … should never drive again,” Adams said.

But Target 8 discovered that nearly three years after the crash, the now-88-year-old man has a valid driver’s license.

The state re-examined him shortly after the crash, cited him for a moving violation causing death and suspended his license for a year. But today, the state treats him the same as any other licensed driver.

“We don’t believe people should be discriminated against based on age,” said Fred Woodhams, spokesperson for Michigan Department of State. “People are living longer and healthier lives today.”

Woodhams said Michigan has not considering requiring anything different of drivers who reach a certain age.

While two-thirds of states have different licensing requirements for elderly drivers, Michigan does not.

“Overall senior drivers are for the most part limiting their driving,” Woodhams said. “They are mostly aware of their faculties when they’re out on the road.”

Woodhams pointed to statistics that show that senior drivers have lower rates of drunk and aggressive driving and are more cautious than younger drivers.

“We always want to keep dangerous drivers off the road,” Woodhams said. “We do in some cases rely on law enforcement officials to bring them to our attention. They’re the ones out stopping folks, they’re ticketing people and pressing charges when that’s necessary.

The state also encourages people who are concerned about a driver’s ability to fill out a form asking the state to pull the driver in for a retest. Woodhams says the state relies on families, caregivers, doctors and police to submit the form, called an OC-88.

>>Online: OC-88 (PDF)

But Karen Adams wishes the state would reconsider whether to require different or more frequent testing of elderly drivers.

She also hopes that sharing her sister’s story will prompt other families to talk about — and plan for — what to do when it’s time for a loved one to restrict their driving or give up the keys for good.

“My sister never got to see her first grandchild be born,” said Adams.

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