Crash Involving 100-Year-Old Driver Rekindles Age Debate

Jack Wyard is 92 and sees no reason to surrender his car keys, not to mention the freedom they give him to get up and go anywhere he wants, whenever he wants.

After all, he said, two years ago he got a perfect score on his written test to renew his license.

“I don’t know what to suggest for anyone else, but I’m still comfortable on the highway and I enjoy driving,” the retired sales manager from Los Angeles said Thursday.

A day earlier, a 100-year-old man who was attempting to back his Cadillac out of a grocery store parking lot struck and injured 14 people, 11 of them children. Three children remained hospitalized Thursday but were expected to recover, police said.

The accident in front of a South Los Angeles elementary school where children had lined up to buy after-school treats brought to the forefront again a debate over how old is too old to keep driving in a country where many people are heavily reliant on their cars.

Is it 80? Or 90? And should anyone past 100 be allowed behind the wheel?

With the American Automobile Association reporting that 10,000 Americans are turning 65 every day, it’s a debate that will only intensify in coming years.

“I don’t think there should be a set age because people age differently,” said Ruth Nadel, 98, who was in her mid-80s when she decided it was time to hand over the keys to someone else.

After her vehicle was in a head-on collision, her children convinced her that, while she wasn’t to blame, her inability to get out of the way of an oncoming car indicated her reflexes might have slowed.

They told her it wasn’t worth risking another wreck and hurting herself or someone else. She said she has no regrets, although she believes she could have driven for a few more years.

While there should be no age limit, the Washington, D.C., woman said, a driving test would be good.

She suggested 80 as a reasonable age for that, adding that a person could be retested every five years. “But that’s as far as I’d go with it,” she added.

Indeed, many states do. California is one of 28 states that have special requirements for older people renewing driver’s licenses.

While younger California drivers with good driving records may automatically be granted two five-year license renewals, anyone over 70 must come to a DMV office and take a written test and eye exam.

“And if for any reason, the (DMV) employee might detect some kind of lack of ability or diminished ability to drive, they might ask them to take a physical driving test,” DMV spokesman Armando Botello said.

There is no upper age limit for driving a car in California.

The state doesn’t keep statistics on how many drivers are 100 or older. However, at the end of last year, 71,111 people 90 or older were licensed to drive in the state.

The notion that older drivers are more likely to get in crashes is not borne out by the statistics.

On average, drivers in their mid- to late-80s have lower crash rates driven than those in their early 20s, said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research.

And still, none of those groups drives as bad as teenagers – America’s riskiest drivers, he said.

Baby boomers, who will make up the fastest growing segment of the population, are expected to help double the number of older drivers on the road, to 57 million, by 2030.

And, unlike the current generation of older drivers, they are expected to drive more.

AAA officials suggest people talk with aging parents about what to do when they can no longer drive, plan ahead for how they will get around and what lifestyle changes they may have to make.

For Wyard, who lives on the far end of LA’s San Fernando Valley, where commuter rail and bus service is limited, life without a car would be difficult. He couldn’t easily get to his country club, his son’s house or the store, to name a few.

His 61-year-old son, Steve, said that when he first heard the news of an accident caused by an elderly driver, his initial thought was, “Where’s my dad?”

“I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather ride with him than my 20-year-old son,” he said.