Jan. 20--Jim Bassett turns 72 next month and still drives himself wherever he needs to go.
Bassett, who lives in Roseville, 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 took time out of a visit to a senior center in Roseville to answer questions about elderly drivers. "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%-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 stretch of Merriman Road on 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 last 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, who lives in Plymouth.
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.