Ninety-six-year-old Marie Long still drives herself to a volunteer job at a hospital in Coral Springs. When asked what having a car and driving means to her she laughs and says: “Oh, it’s my wheels.”
The Coral Springs resident is among the many seniors that still drive in a state with few restrictions for elderly drivers, and very few alternatives in public transportation. She recognizes she will someday have to give up her wheels but fears that will be the end of life as she knows it.
“There’s a 90-year-old lady lives across the street in that house, I never see her, I never see her,” she says.
Florida doesn’t impose an age limit on drivers. Of the more than 4,000 residents over the age of 100, about 300 have driver’s licenses.
However, individuals like the Gaitans are making a push for restrictions for elderly drivers. They lost their daughter, Celeste Gaitan, who was 6 months pregnant, when an elderly driver plowed through her southwest Miami-Dade store. According to police, the 72-year-old driver accelerated instead of breaking.
That's a common problem for some seniors, according to an American Association of Retired Persons instructor that teaches classes at local police departments. Martin Finkelstein explains many seniors learned to drive over half a century ago when every car had a manual transmission and you had to use both feet. Then, when automatic cars came out, some continued to use both feet. The problem with that technique, he says, is that frightened drivers may end up stepping on both pedals and the engine will beat the brake system every time.
Classes like the AARP “driver safety” course help with insurance rates and address how to deal with changes that come with aging behind the wheel and driving retirement.
“Everybody doesn’t age the same way. Everybody doesn’t lose their eyesight at the same rate," Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Mark Wysocky says.
Long thinks “it’s according to the person. Lots of older people stop driving because they say they don’t feel comfortable driving.” She goes on to say, “I feel very comfortable driving.”
That's why advocates say you can’t bunch people up by age when deciding to implement driving restrictions. But precautions should and can be taken as you age and continue driving. Finkelstein explains, “If you have to drive at 40 miles per hour in a 70-mile per hour speed limit zone you should be telling yourself at that time, I probably shouldn’t be driving on limited access highways.”
Long has taken some precautions. She cracks open the window when driving to compensate for her hearing loss.
“I want to hear if there’s anything going on outside like sirens, especially around the hospital,” she said as she rolled down the window.
According to the AARP, drivers over 75 have almost as many crashes as more inexperienced drivers in the 16-24 age group. Senior advocates say everyone should be more cautious on the road.
“Someone who’s a bad driver when they’re 18 is a bad driver when they’re 28, they’re not going to get any better when they get older," said Edith Lederberg with the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Broward County.
So what can you do if you think a driver should retire? In Florida you can fill out a confidential unsafe driver report and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles can make the person retake the written and road test. You can find that form here.
Of course, advocates say, you just can’t take someone’s license away without alternative transportation. You can inquire about transportation services for the elderly by calling Broward County's Elder Helpline at 954-745-9779 or contacting Miami-Dade Transit at 786-469-5000.