Older drivers urged to test their skills

Kim Lewis survived a fiery crash last December near I-465.
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It's a tough topic to talk about, but one that could make your family safer. When is it time to put the brakes on aging parents behind the wheel?

Older drivers are more cautious than younger ones, but declining skills can make older drivers dangerous.

The debate heated up again, after a recent accident in California.

Last week, a 100-year-old man in Los Angeles mistakenly backed his car onto a sidewalk and into schoolchildren. Eleven people had to go to the hospital as a result.

We've seen similar accidents here in Central Indiana: people hitting the gas instead of the brake, driving into buildings, and causing crashes, injuries, even death.

They're drivers with decades of experience, But some older drivers with diminishing skills can become dangerous behind the wheel.

Kim Lewis survived a fiery crash last December near I-465.

Police say the 89-year-old in the other car had been going the wrong way for more than a mile.

"There was no time to veer, no time to stop. We just hit instantly. Without any warning as I approached the Shadeland Avenue exit right at 56th Street, a gentleman came underneath the underpass. We just hit dead head-on," Lewis explained.

The impact injured Kim and killed the wrong-way driver.

"They lost a husband, a father and a grandfather and that's when it's really tough," Lewis said. "The gentleman was 89 and from what we'd gathered, had just recently had his license renewed. It does bring those questions, should he have been driving, should he not?"

It's a delicate question for families, especially since driving equals independence.

But it's one safety experts are studying.

In the next 20 years, as baby boomers age, the number of older drivers is expected to triple.

Statistics show per mile traveled, older drivers, especially after age 85, are involved in more deadly crashes than even teenagers.

"I had thought that at a certain age, I think 70 or so, you needed to take a driving test," Lewis questioned.

But most states, including Indiana, only require a vision test for license renewal, Although older drivers do have to visit the BMV more often.

"After age 75 through age 85, the driver's license is a three-year license and then after age 85, a license is renewable every two years," explained Indiana BMV spokesperson Dennis Rosebrough.

Concerned families can request a license be revoked. It's an anonymous way to report a potential unsafe driver through the BMV.

Medical forms are filled out by a doctor, then sent back to the BMV's medical board for review.

The results could limit driving or revoke a license altogether.

"We want to make sure that if a person is really impaired, then the law really is intended to get that kind of a person off the road," Rosebrough said.

But if you aren't sure whether it's time to take the keys away from Mom or Dad, there are alternatives to test their skills, find potential weaknesses behind the wheel and make sure they're safe on the road.

Shirley Neal, 81, still feels confident in the car. But she took a driving assessment to be sure her skills weren't slipping.

"I think if the young people can take the time (to take a road test) why can't older people?" Neal said.

"To stop driving is the last resort to anybody. It really is. Even having someone ask you, 'Mom, Dad, do you think it's time for you to turn in your keys? That's your independence, you know. I think the test is very helpful."

Drive Zone offers the road test for $50.

Senior advocacy groups have discounted programs too.

"It's helpful if someone can kind-of point out the things that you don't really think about," Neal said.

"We're trying to ensure that she has enough following distance, that she plans her routes before she goes to the store, so she doesn't get into rush hour," said Avon Drive Zone owner, Dustin Bailey. "We want to work with older adults to ensure that they have the opportunity to have as much as their own individual freedom as is possible."

Conversations about the car can be emotional for aging drivers.

Kim Lewis said she's had them with her own family. But after experiencing her accident, Lewis says it's essential for safety.

"It's better to deal with it and take away that freedom or find other answers versus, you know, dealing with them hurting someone or hurting themselves or as badly as this ended up too," she said.

Resources for older drivers:

AAA senior driving - lists Indiana's rules, programs to test skills on the road

IIHS - stats on older drivers

BMV - medical driver ability form through Indiana BMV

AARP - driver safety courses available online & in person, searchable by zip code

Drive Zone - offers senior assessment for $50