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Not wise to judge drivers by their age

By: Carol Feineman, News Messenger Editor
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Comedians have a heyday talking about senior drivers. Older drivers are the butt of late-night TV jokes and comedy show routines. I?ve chuckled at many of the jokes. But after talking to John Locher, I?m not laughing anymore. Because he told me this week that the jokes aren?t accurate. Locher is the California Department of Motor Vehicle?s (DMV) chief of the senior driver ombudsman branch. I called him after reading a city of Lincoln press release a week ago about an accident at Sun City Boulevard and Tiger Lily Lane. Three women pedestrians were hit, according to the press release, when a 71-year old Subaru driver fell asleep at the wheel just prior to failing to stop at a stop sign. Lincoln police sent a re-examination referral of the Subaru driver to DMV, according to Lincoln Interim Police Chief Paul Shelgren. DMV will determine if the driver can retain his license, according to Shelgren. Fortunately, the women?s injuries were not fatal. Unfortunately, I?m not proud with my first question upon hearing about the accident: ?Was a senior driver involved?? After talking to Locher, I will no longer assume that senior drivers are bad drivers. Currently, 11 percent or 4.5 million-plus of California drivers are age 65 and older, according to Locher. That number is expected to increase to 20 percent or 15 million California drivers within 20 years. That?s a big segment of the state?s population. These drivers are safe drivers, according to Locher and others who analyze driving trends. ?Seniors are the only demographics that self-restrict themselves,? Locher said. ?Many of them will not drive at night, in inclement weather, at the mall at Christmas time or near the high school at 3 p.m. Many limit their mileage to more familiar locales. When seniors choose not to drive on the freeway anymore, they recognize their limitations. It makes them safer.? On the other hand, Locher pointed out, ?teens as new drivers push their limit and need to see how far they can go. Teens 16 to 20 are four times more likely to get in a traffic collision than those 65 and older.? California Highway Patrol public information officer David Martinez agrees. ?Who has the most crashes? The new teen drivers. If you look at our accidents, it affects everyone,? Martinez said. ?No category is higher than another. You have teenagers, seniors, middle-aged people with limitations. You can?t stereotype senior drivers. That?s not fair.? And yet the senior driver jokes continue to be heard across the country. ?Seniors are an easy group to pick on. They tend to be more polite. They don?t fight back as much,? Locher said. ?It?s been pushed out that you?re allowed to make fun of them. That?s a shame because statistics show differently. Seniors are not the worst drivers. They?re among the safest.? Many of us will eventually have to give up our keys, due to changes in our physical, mental and/or visual health. But nobody wants to think about the time we can no longer drive. Because it means losing independence. ?It?s almost like being under house arrest. We don?t need millions of seniors locked to their homes,? Locher said. ?The ability to drive means you?re self sufficient. Once you don?t have that freedom, you?re a prisoner in your home.? Losing the privilege to be behind a steering wheel is a huge lifestyle change, akin to losing freedom of movement. As Locher pointed out, the individual can no longer, for example, ?jump in their car? for an ice cream cone or to pick up a prescription refill. ?It?s devastating to give up keys, especially with the super seniors, the ones who were in World War II and Korea,? Locher said. ?They?ll say, ?I drove a truck all over Korea and now I?m like a child. I?m not valued anymore; now I?m dependent on someone else.? DMV?s Senior Driver Ombudsman program, formed in 2007, ?keeps individuals driving as long as they wish to drive and can drive safely, taking into consideration visual, medical and mental health,? according to Locher. There?s no automatic upper-age limit to quit driving, Locher stressed. ?It?s not age; it?s skills, ability and attitudes,? Locher said. I don?t find those senior driver jokes funny anymore. Those jokes are not fair. I?m no longer going to jump to any conclusions about a driver?s ability, based on age.