It was a tragedy that had already resulted in one death when it was compounded by another.
On July 13, Cole Sukle, fourteen, and a friend were riding bicycles in a designated lane alongside a park near East Yale Avenue and East Nielsen Way when they were struck by a car driven by Patricia Livingston, an 81-year-old University of Denver trustee who'd been accused of a hit-and-run crash last October.
Sukle lost his fight for life the next day — and Livingston died on Saturday night, July 23, from injuries she sustained in the crash. As a result of her passing, charges of careless driving resulting in death that had been issued by the Denver District Attorney's Office in her name have been dropped.
It's a terrible story, but hardly an uncommon one. Colorado Department of Transportation statistics show that there were 454 fatal crashes involving drivers aged 65 and older from 2012 to 2014 — the most recent year for which data is available. Nearly 40 percent of the 640 people involved in those accidents were killed, and while older people made up less than two-thirds of that total, they constituted 71 percent of the fatalities.
The numbers confirm that older drivers can be dangers to themselves and others. But Jackie Mohr, executive director of Evergreen-based Drive Smart, a CDOT grantee, acknowledges that plenty of people would rather make excuses for the poor driving of what she calls "experienced drivers" rather than face the awkwardness of confronting them about it — and she uses a very personal experience to illustrate her point.
"My father passed away last summer," she notes. "When I went to his funeral in New Jersey, I spoke to the men in his prayer group that he would go to every morning, and they joked that he'd dented all the cars in the lot — and no one ever said anything to him. Instead, they would laugh and say, 'That's just Arthur,' because he was the oldest member of the synagogue, and he'd gained a certain level of respect. The manager of the local Dunkin' Donuts came to the funeral, too, and he talked about how my father would sometimes fall asleep in his car with the motor running — but when customers would tell him about it, he would say, 'That's just Arthur. He's taking a nap.'"
To Mohr, however, the decision not to take these matters more seriously "didn't do my father any favors. What if those cars he bumped into had been a dog? Or a child? They looked at as if showing him respect, but as his daughter, I wished they'd said something."
Recognizing how difficult it is for family members to ask elderly drivers to hand over their keys, the State of Colorado has established several special rules for drivers who are 65 or older. They can't renew their driver's licenses online, the renewals are for five years rather than ten, and those renewing by mail must include a signed form from a optometrist or ophthalmologist confirming "that they have the requisite visual acuity set by regulation." Moreover, older drivers who've had two accidents within three years of each other are required to take a re-examination — something that can also happen at the request of a family member, doctor or law enforcement officer.
Mohr would like to see more frequent testing of older drivers — and all drivers, for that matter — especially given how quickly their numbers are growing. She cites U.S. Census Bureau info predicting that the number of people aged 85 and older will increase 73 percent by 2030, with those seventy and older doubling in the next decade and folks who are sixty or above doubling in twenty years.
Moreover, a Denver Regional Council of Governments survey indicates that 95 percent of sixty-plus residents in Jefferson County, where Drive Smart is located, use private vehicles driven by them or others to get around.
Oh, yeah: Mohr says road-safety analysts predict that by 2030, drivers aged 65 and older will be responsible for 25 percent of all fatal crashes — more than double the current 11 percent.
Neither Mohr nor CDOT spokesman Sam Cole want to leave the impression they want to outlaw older drivers. Indeed, Cole stresses that CDOT is trying to make the roadways safer for older drivers by way of larger signage and new techniques such as painting highway insignia directly on the roadway.
In addition, Mohr encourages the use of technology to assist older drivers. "If you go to Amazon, you can get a padded seat that will allow your torso to twist from a driving position and make it easier for you to get out of the car," she says. "You can get a backup camera for around $60, which can be very helpful for people with a limited range of motion, or pedal extenders for people who are shrinking because of age, so to speak. A lot of car insurance companies give discounts on policies for products like those, or for taking AARP driver-safety courses designed for experienced drivers."
At the same time, Mohr wants family members as well as authorities to get over the idea that they're being nice to older drivers when they shrug off indications that they're no longer safe behind the wheel.
"I want law enforcement to write people a ticket for them to be evaluated," she stresses. "I know it can be hard for an older community member who's earned their respect tenfold to be told they need to be tested, but they need to know about possible changes in their abilities — about why they may be experiencing road rage, and why other people may be experiencing road rage with them."
Look below to see two resources recommended by Mohr: a report titled "Colorado's Guide for Aging Drivers and Their Families," plus a summary report of experienced driver focus-group findings from this past May.
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