Families struggle to get states to take keys from elderly drivers

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by BYRON HARRIS

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WFAA

Posted on February 20, 2014 at 11:33 PM

Updated Friday, Feb 21 at 3:54 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

DALLAS -- Before he died last year, James Pickles, then 91, was cognitively impaired and could not hear well, according to his doctors at the Dallas VA.

But his daughters couldn't convince the state to revoke his driver’s license.

Their experience may not be an isolated incident.

Texas had more than 434,000 drivers over the age of 80 on the road in fiscal year 2012, according to state figures. By contrast, there were 76,000 16-year-old license holders in that same period.

The state does not readily know how many drivers over 80 failed drivers tests last year. The oldest license driver in Texas is 107, according to the state. DPS will not reveal the driver's sex or identity.

"Dementia is very prevalent," Sue Cohen said of elderly drivers.

Three years ago, her son was killed by an 83-year-old woman while bicycling to class at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was hit and trapped under the car. The driver, confused, stopped the vehicle and left it running. He suffered burns and oxygen deprivation.

Cohen and her husband started Americans for Older Driver Safety (AFODS) in an effort to have licensing requirements stiffened for older drivers. She says more people will have to be killed before changes are made.

"I'm afraid that's always been the problem in this country, which has always been a car culture," she said.

James Pickles’ three daughters say they miss their father deeply, but they don't miss the battles they had with him and the state to keep him off the road.

Three years before his death, he had the first of three incidents where he got in his car, drove to another city, and did not know where he was. On each occasion, police or friendly truck stop attendants watched over Mr. Pickles until one of the daughters could come and retrieve him.

"He would get out on the freeway, and I'm sure these were areas he was initially familiar with, but he would keep going and not stop," said daughter Joyce King. "He drove to Houston."

After that incident in 2010, Pickles' license expired and he insisted one of his daughter's take him to renew it. He was then 89.

Pat Mitchell, one of the daughters, took him to the DPS assuming the license could not be renewed.

Mr. Pickles walked with stumbling gait and was very hard of hearing. "'He's 89! He's 89!'" Mrs. Mitchell said she told the drivers license representatives.

The license was renewed.

After age 79, Texas law requires that drivers renew their licenses in person and take an eye test. At 85, drivers have to renew every two years. They do not have to take written or driving tests.

Texas DPS regulations say drivers' license office representatives "are trained to evaluate an applicant's physical appearance and conduct a basic medical evaluation on every individual who applies for a drivers' license."

After he was renewed, the Pickles daughters parked their father's car at one of their homes, where they thought he could not get it. He got the vehicle and drove it to Oklahoma. He, again, had to be retrieved.

Then the daughters tried to get the license revoked. They had their father take a physical exam at the VA. It determined he suffered from mild cognitive impairment, and had hearing loss. They submitted those findings to the DPS, along with a form questioning his ability to drive.

They say DPS told them that was not enough to revoke the license.

"It was surprising to us that they would give him another license, given all the information we had for them,” Pat Mitchell said.

These incidents are not surprising to Jerry Wall of Aledo. Wall has a prosthetic leg, from a near fatal head-on collision with 82-year-old Vernell Ingram in 2010.

"I've got a scar almost all the way from my knee up to my pelvis," said Wall, who spent 25 days in a hospital.

He was on a motorcycle. Ms. Ingram was headed the wrong way down an Interstate-20 exit ramp.

Wall was awarded more than $5 million in a jury trial against Ingram. She was not criminally charged, but was required to take a driver’s test. She failed the test four times, and examiners notes say she signaled incorrectly, made bad turns, and hit a pole while being tested.

On her fifth try, she was awarded a license.

Illinois is the only state where older drivers -- ages 81 and over -- have to be tested more frequently than younger drivers. For nationwide changes to happen, each state would have to revise its own laws.

The biggest opponent, reformers say, is the AARP, which supports highway safety but opposes any stiffer regulations based on age.

"We're not going to pick on folks when they turn a magical age of 75, or 80, or 90," said Rafael Ayuso of AARP's state office in Austin.

"The caregiver is the one that has the hard time," Sharon Pickles said, remembering what she and her sisters went through with their father.

It's easy to say children should simply take their elderly parents’ keys, but hard to accomplish, said Joyce King.

"He would say things like, 'I've been driving longer than you've been living,’” she said.

Do you know someone who is not fit to drive because of a medical condition? Click here for information on the Texas DPS medical revocation process.


E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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