DETROIT — Jim Bassett turns 72 next month and still drives himself wherever he needs to go.
He assumes he might have to give up driving some day but notes that his mother drove into her late 80s.
"Driving, to me, is an individual thing. There's people in their 80s who are quite capable, and there's people in their 40s I don't think should drive," said Bassett, who lives in Roseville, Mich. "If you're capable, I could see no reason why you should give up your driving."
With the number of elderly drivers expected to explode in coming years, the question of when is it time to turn over the keys because of diminished abilities echoes more urgently. By 2030, 85% to 90% of the 70 million Americans older than 65 are projected to have driver's licenses, according to auto insurer AAA. That's a substantial boost from 2009, when 33 million licensed drivers were older than 65.
In Michigan, as of Dec. 29, 515,185 of the state's almost 7.1 million licensed drivers were 75 or older, and 242 of them were 100 or older, according to the Michigan Secretary of State. The office does not track whether more complaints are raised about elderly drivers than other groups, but it does receive about 400 driver re-examination requests every month for drivers suspected to be unsafe, and the largest number, behind law enforcement, comes from family members.
The debate over elderly drivers reached a fever pitch last week as details emerged involving the death of 88-year-old Lorraine McKaig. The Livonia woman was detoured after being ticketed by Livonia police because she tried to drive through a barricaded area near an industrial fire Wednesday. McKaig, whose official cause of death was heart disease, never made it to the restaurant and instead was found more than eight hours later on the ground outside her car on Detroit's east side after a crash into a fence.
Family members said McKaig was stubborn and could be forgetful but always stuck to her driving routine around Livonia. And her driving record before Wednesday was free of tickets, according to Secretary of State records covering the past seven years. Still, McKaig's plight prompted many Free Press readers to suggest that family members should have pre-emptively taken her keys away. Others related the difficulties of trying to stop their own parents from driving when they began exhibiting signs of dementia or were no longer physically able.
"I sympathize with people trying to care for elderly parents who resist no longer driving out of fear (of) losing their independence as they near the end of their lives. My mom also used her car to stay within a 5-mile radius of her home, but had an accident, which — thankfully — did not hurt anyone but convinced her it was time to stop driving," said Mary McElyea in an e-mail recalling her experience with her 83-year-old mother.
McElyea said that "what happened to (McKaig) could have easily happened to my mom (or late dad) and should be a warning for anyone with an elderly parent still on the road. They put others and themselves at risk every time they get behind the wheel."
Experts and advocates for older residents cautioned against a rush to judgment.
Mark Hornbeck, spokesman for AARP Michigan, said concluding that older drivers are a problem is "not a jump that people should make."
"Driving skill is more related to health than it is to age. There's no magic age at which everyone needs to give up their keys. It's a health-related issue," Hornbeck said.
Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State's Office, noted that those 65 and older in the state represented 16.5% of drivers in 2009 but only 8.3% of crash victims.
That lower crash rate could be attributable in part to changing habits, said Nancy Cain, spokeswoman for AAA Michigan.
"A lot of older drivers, as they get older, they self-police themselves," Cain said, noting that some stop driving at night and others avoid freeways or limit their driving to times when traffic is lighter.
Or they avoid situations that, according to Hornbeck, the AARP spokesman, tend to pose more problems for older drivers — left turns, for example.
That type of self-policing was at work for McKaig, who had already been limiting her own driving before Wednesday's events. According to family members, McKaig stuck to driving during the day, and she crafted routes where she could avoid left turns.
And while experts note that elderly drivers tend to engage in fewer of the risky activities that younger drivers might be inclined to, such as aggressive or drunken driving, they face higher rates of fatal crashes as they age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that per mile traveled, "fatal crash rates increase starting at age 75 and increase notably after age 80."
How to get help
If family members suspect their older loved ones pose a danger behind the wheel, there are options.
Cynthia Burt is a certified driving instructor and driver rehabilitation specialist who is preparing to open an office in the Oak Park area for her business, Drive-Able. Burt assesses the driving skills of her clients, some of them elderly, by doing clinical checks, reviewing their medical histories and testing their memories and reaction times, among other things.
Burt, who has tested drivers in their 100s, also takes clients on two driving tests, once in their own neighborhoods and once with a manufactured detour thrown in to assess their problem-solving abilities.
"Sometimes performances vary from day to day," Burt said.
The key is to monitor suspect drivers — including riding along as a passenger — and to be willing to address the issue with any driver who poses a potential risk.
"It's not an easy conversation for young people to talk to their parents about when it's time to stop driving … but it's an important conversation to have, that's for sure," said Cain, the AAA spokeswoman, noting that an elderly driver has the same responsibilities as any other licensed driver.
Many families struggle with the issue of when an elderly person should stop driving because it signals a loss of independence, can pose real transportation problems in areas where mass transit is sketchy and can increase depression, experts say.
For Jim Bassett, driving represents freedom.
"Without that, I'd be stranded at the house ... you start looking at four walls and start wondering about what life (is)," Bassett said.
According to AARP, here are 10 signs it's time to limit or stop driving:
Almost crashing, with frequent close calls.
Finding dents or scrapes on the car, or fences, mailboxes and garage doors at home.
Getting lost, especially in familiar locations.
Having trouble following traffic signals, road signs and pavement markings.
Responding more slowly to unexpected situations, or having trouble moving foot from gas to brake pedals, confusing the two pedals.
Misjudging gaps in traffic at intersections and on highway entrance and exit ramps.
Experiencing road rage or causing other drivers to honk or complain.
Easily becoming distracted or having difficulty concentrating while driving.
Having a hard time turning around to check the rear view while backing up or changing lanes.
Receiving multiple traffic tickets or warnings from law enforcement officers.