News

Are older drivers the issue?

by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette

 

Twice in recent weeks cars have crashed into commercial buildings in Sequim, prompting a discussion among city councilors regarding the need for new parking lot safety rules.

 

The proposal was brought to council by Tim and Leslie Verdick, owners of R.C. Hobbies in Sequim. On Sunday, Sept. 26, their business was struck by a car. Leslie called the timing fortunate, noting the car plunged through her regular workspace. "If it hadn't been closed on Sunday, I would have been standing where it hit. That's where I usually spend all day."

 

"When all is said and done," the repair tab is "probably $50,000," Tim Verdick said.

 

The two spoke at the city council's Monday, Oct. 11, meeting to ask for a new ordinance that would require placing bollards at the end of handicapped parking spaces where the car turns right up to the building.

 

"At the very least at the handicapped spaces, but I think all should have it," Tim said. He noted this is the second time in three years a car has struck the building in which R.C. Hobbies is located.

 

"I'd like to see immediately a new ordinance to require it for new construction," Tim said. "In addition, all existing stuff should be retrofitted." He admitted passage of such an ordinance is unlikely. "You're required to have it for a heater in a garage, but not where people are."

 

Verdick nevertheless is hopeful, saying the council's response was "positive."

 

Not so fast

Craig Ritchie, Sequim City Attorney, says ensuring these buildings are safe from auto intrusions is "a great idea," but requiring it is problematic.

 

"It's something the city might look at, but there's an easy solution: If a business wants one, they can put it in.

 

"Anytime you try to require something, the argument is - the business knows best.

 

"If it becomes a huge problem, the city might take steps."

 

In the meantime, Ritchie recommends business owners take matters into their own hands, which may require speaking to their landlords.

 

Ritchie also said, "I don't think we have any more or less of those types of incidents than other cities, despite our older population."

 

Unsafe at any speed?

Statistics from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission confirm Ritchie's opinion. In 2005-2009, the percentage of traffic fatalities among those 70 and older actually were lower in Clallam County than in the state as a whole.

 

But another study, this one by the Centers for Disease Control, shows per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase starting at age 75 and "increase notably after age 80." However, CDC says this isn't so much the result of an increased tendency to get into crashes but more to an increased susceptibility to injury, particularly chest injuries, and other medical complications.

 

Age-related declines in vision and cognitive functioning (ability to reason and remember), as well as physical changes, may affect some older adults' driving abilities, CDC officials said.

 

Washington rules

Brad Benfield, spokesman with the Washington State Department of Licenses, notes there are no age-based standards to determine who can drive safely. "It's all based on their abilities - and their difficulties." Driving difficulties "can occur at any point in life," he said.

 

To a large degree, determining who retains the necessary physical and mental abilities to drive safely is left up to those working the counter at DOL offices.

 

"Our license service representatives observe those who have come in for renewals," Benfield said. "Most people don't know this, but our workers have the authority to require anybody, for any reason, to retest at renewal. That could be an eye exam, a driving test or even the knowledge test."

 

But he also noted the DOL can and does take action "based on reports from physicians, law enforcement officials and family members."

 

These reports are important, he said, because sometimes those seeking to renew their driver's license are fully capable on the day they visit the DOL. "On other days, they're not so capable."

 

Determining when you should report a driver is complicated, but "loss of consciousness is a biggie," Benfield said.

 

Those with concerns about a driver can pick up a form from any DOL office or download it from the website at www.dol.wa.gov/forms/formsdriver.html. Look under "Driver Licenses" for "Recommendation for Driver Re-examination."

 

If the DOL agrees there is reason for concern, they will call in the driver.

 

"We ask them to come in for an objective assessment. In most cases," Benfield said, "they understand they shouldn't be driving."

 

Benfield said the DOL also can require a medical certification of the driver's capabilities. "Some can drive when they're feeling fine but maybe they're having blackouts. Then we would require a medical certification - a physical exam and a report."

 

Behind the wheel

Patricia Mansell, 70, says she believes she'll know when she should stop driving. "I think when the time comes when I'm confused or don't know something, I'll stop. My father drove until his mid-80s and he was horrible. I don't want to do that."

 

She also believes her husband will speak up when the time has come. "Yes, definitely. I would refuse to ride with him, too."

 

Marilyn Zimmerman, 71, agreed. "I consider myself a good driver," she said. "I drive the speed limit or a little over. I hate it when someone in front of me is going 40. It causes more accidents.

 

"I think I'll know that it's time to quit. You'll scare yourself."

 

Luella Thompson is done with driving. Thompson, who turns 90 this April, said, "I had a little accident and it cost too much to renew."

 

"I didn't have much choice," she said. "My son said I didn't need to drive any more."

 

She said she relies on the paratransit system and good friends, "who will take me wherever I need to go."

 

"My son will drive me, too," she said.

 

Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

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