Safety effort targets state's older drivers

Officials unveiled a public health campaign Wednesday aimed at helping get aging Missouri men and women off the roads when it’s no longer safe for them to drive and at preparing them for life without a license.

The Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety’s kicked off its “Arrive Alive After 65” effort with a Columbia news conference that featured two state residents who lost a family member in traffic fatalities caused by older drivers.

The program aims to train doctors, nurses and peer educators to identify vulnerable seniors whose medical conditions may unknowingly pose safety threats. Organizers will start with a pilot project at University Hospital in Columbia and Mercy Hospital in Springfield and later look to take the effort statewide.

Dr. James Kessel, a trauma surgeon and chief of staff at the Columbia hospital, called for a more realistic conversation about aging drivers. A licensed pilot, he used an analogy from his hobby.

“Every pilot knows that you are going to lose your license,” he said. “There will come a day when you are grounded.”

The Missouri Department of Transportation reported 126 traffic deaths statewide in 2012 involving drivers 65 and older. Another 435 older Missourians were seriously injured while driving last year, with another 3,500 less serious injuries among older drivers. People 55 and older accounted for more than one in four traffic deaths in Missouri last year.

University of Missouri senior Nina Bolka, whose older sister’s death led to successful family efforts to change Texas driving laws, invoked a phrase more commonly heard by new teen drivers, not those with decades of experience behind the wheel.

“Driving is a right, not a privilege,” Bolka said. A 2007 law named for her sister requires Texas drivers 79 and older to appear in person for license renewals. Previously, such drivers — or their adult children — could renew licenses online. Drivers older than 85 must renew their Texas licenses every two years.

The news conference was held at OATS Inc., a nonprofit senior bus service that serves 87 counties.

Even as her counterparts were urging for fewer drivers on the road, executive director Dorothy Yeager spoke of expected service cuts, primarily in rural areas, as the nonprofit faces a loss of federal support due to sequestration.

“When you’re talking about taking away the keys from someone, especially in a rural area, you’re taking away their independence,” she said.

Organizer James Stowe emphasized the aging driver program will be voluntary, and is designed to educate, not intimidate. As more baby boomers started turning 70 and 80, what is now an uncomfortable decision could become a necessary one for many.

“We need to normalize the conversation of driving cessation,” Stowe said. “It’s not something that is normally talked about.”

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