The number of elderly Miami Valley residents with driver’s licenses rose dramatically in the last decade, leading some traffic-- safety experts to remind aging motorists to routinely evaluate their driving faculties.
About 62,947 residents 75 and older in Montgomery, Miami, Greene, Butler and Warren counties had driver’s licenses in 2010, up from 50,327 a decade earlier, according to data from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
Last year, about 13,524 residents in the five-county region, 85 and older, had driver’s licenses. That was an increase of 89 percent from 7,167 in 2000.
Ohio does not put any special driver’s-licensing restrictions on senior citizens, and some Ohioans maintain their driving skills deep into old age. For many seniors, the ability to drive is an important component of their independence.
But many people will outlive their ability to drive, and aging has been linked to driving mistakes such as veering and left-turn collisions, safety officials said.
Safety groups and advocates for the elderly recommend aging residents plan for the day when they are unable to climb behind the wheel to get around.
“Think about it before you have to do it,” said Rae Crooker, district coordinator for the AARP driver-safety program, which covers 10 counties in the region. “I have had people tell me it’s like having two broken legs, because they can’t even get to the library without asking somebody to take them.”
In 2010, about 557,044 Ohioans 75 and older and 127,146 residents 85 and older were licensed. In 2000, there were 493,371 licensed drivers 75 and older, and 75,360 people with licenses 85 and older.
By 2025, an estimated one in four drivers in America will be 65 and older.
Growing older does not inherently make people bad drivers, but as people age, their joints often get stiff and their muscles weaken, which can make it difficult for them to turn to check on blind spots, turn the steering wheel quickly or brake safely, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Reaction time typically slows and eyesight also changes as people age, and some older drivers have trouble seeing people and objects outside of their direct line of sight, according to the institute.
One of the biggest issues facing older drivers is the decline of “attentional memory,” which is the ability to filter relevant information from useless information, said Kate de Medeiros, assistant professor of gerontology with the Department of Sociology and Gerontology at Miami University.
De Medeiros said many older drivers struggle with making left turns because they require processing multiple pieces of information, making a judgment and executing an action.
“To make a left turn, you have to be able to hold in your attentional memory what’s on the right, what’s on the left and you then have to know when to proceed,” she said. “Slow attention and slower processing speed means you may not be able to filter that information.”
Slowed reaction time and slowed mental processing can contribute to accidents, and drivers 80 and older who are involved in crashes have a higher fatality rate than all other age groups except drivers 20 to 24, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Drivers 75 to 79 years old had a fatality rate higher than all other drivers except teenagers and people in their 20s. Physical frailty, of course, often plays a role in the deaths of elderly drivers.
Robert Schmid, 79, of Centerville, said he voluntarily decided to stop driving more than five years ago because he has macular degeneration and glaucoma. He said his vision is inadequate to ensure he can safely navigate Ohio’s roads.
“My vision is not good enough to drive,” he said. “If a car is coming at me, particularly if it is a black car, I can’t see it until it is about half a block in front of me.”
Despite his vision issues, Schmid said he passed Georgia’s driving test in 2006 “with flying colors,” and then he passed Ohio’s written and vision driving tests in 2007 when he moved to the state.
Last year, he said he renewed his driver’s license after he again passed the Ohio BMV’s mandated vision test, although the agency restricted his driving to only daytime hours. He said he does not trust his driving abilities no matter the time of day.
Lindsey Bohrer, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, said the state does not engage in age discrimination by imposing extra restrictions or additional tests on drivers who exceed a certain age.
Bohrer said lots of elderly people in Ohio maintain their driving skills very late in life. Last year, there were 10 centenarians with driver’s licenses in the Miami Valley and 146 in Ohio.
She pointed out that Ohio laws allow the registrar of motor vehicles to require licensed drivers to submit medical statements or take a driver exam if they receive information giving “good cause to believe” the driver is incompetent or incapable of safely operating a vehicle.
The BMV also investigates requests from relatives, friends or neighbors to determine whether a licensed driver is still competent or capable of driving. Age alone cannot be the basis of a request.
But some states, such as Illinois, require drivers 75 and older to take a road test when they renew their licenses. About 20 states shorten the expiration dates of driver’s licenses after they reach a certain age. Driver screening policies vary from state to state, but people are driving longer than they have in the past.
For many people, the decision to quit driving is painful, both from a practical standpoint and a personal one, because driving is a “symbol of freedom,” de Medeiros said.
“Our cars are our freedom, and they are huge part of the culture.”
Additionally, de Medeiros said many suburban and rural areas have limited transportation options for residents who cannot drive. Many groups across the Miami Valley provide rides to elderly residents, but some people are still left unserved, officials said.
Schmid said deciding to surrender his car keys was one of the most difficult decisions he has ever had to make. He said it meant giving up some of his independence, but he knew it was not safe to get in the driver’s seat.
“It was extremely hard, and it still bugs me terrible,” he said. “But thank god my wife’s health is like a 55-year-old. ” She handles all of the driving now.
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-0749 or cfrolik@DaytonDailyNews.com.