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5-fatality crash renews older driver debate

TUSCALOOSA (AP) — A car crash in Newbern that killed five people has raised questions about when it's time for older people to stop driving, but experts say age is not the sole determining factor.

Amelia Heath, executive director for FOCUS on Senior Citizens, said older drivers shouldn't have any driving restrictions as long as they continue to drive safely.

"I'm an older driver, and I don't think we should have to do anything extra unless we've demonstrated that we aren't capable of driving safely," Heath said.

On Feb. 4, State Troopers said a 73-year-old man was driving a car with his 70-year-old wife as a passenger when he pulled into the path of another car at Hale County 10 and Alabama 61.

The couple and the three men in the other vehicle, a 20-year-old, a 23-year-old and a 24-year-old, were killed in the resulting collision.

Fewer accidents

David Brown, director of development for the CARE Research and Development Lab at The University of Alabama, said older drivers generally cause fewer traffic accidents than any other age group.

Brown, whose lab compiles traffic records and monitors traffic safety in Alabama, said studies show that the older people get, the less risk they take.

"The high-risk items that cause the most severe crashes are not being restrained, via seat belt or child seat, speeding, and alcohol or drug use in that order. These are the things that younger people do typically more than older drivers," Brown said.

Brown said one in five overall crashes are caused by people between the ages of 16 and 20. He said people between the ages of 69 and 80 cause about one in 255 crashes, which is nowhere near as high a ratio as the 16-through-20-year-old group, but it is the second highest age group responsible for vehicle wrecks.

Break-even point

"We have found that the break-even point for older people is 69," Brown said. "Above age 69, they'll have more problems associated with impairment."

"Senior diminished physical capacity affects their driving because they're not seeing as well, aren't able to turn their head as well and not reacting as fast," he said.

Robert Tucker, 67, who drives on a daily basis, said his ability to drive safely is perfectly fine.

But when he reaches 70, he feels that he, and everyone else at that age, should be required to retake a driver's test every two years.

"I've seen a lot of 80-year-olds out on the street that really shouldn't have been there," he said.

Clay Ingram, spokesman for AAA Alabama, said older
drivers should continue to drive as long as they can drive safely.

To that end, Ingram said AAA has started a program called "Lifelong Safe Mobility," which includes a defensive driving class for people over 55.

"Safe Driving for Mature Operators is an eight-hour defensive driving course approved by the state of Alabama," Ingram said.

"There are certified professional instructors teaching the class, which keeps our seniors up to date on the changes and new laws for driving that they need to be aware of."

Ingram said there's also a state law in place that allows older drivers who take and pass AAAs defensive driving course to get a discount on their car insurance for three years, which can be continually be renewed if they take and pass the course every three years.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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