Seniors speak out about dangerous driving

A sudden scourge of deadly accidents and critical media coverage has brought a harsh new light upon the difficult topic of elderly drivers recently, causing many to question when the proper age may be for seniors to hang up the keys for good. Dorchester seniors have as many different viewpoints on how to approach the problem as do the public officials now deliberating how best to protect the roads as well as elders’ dignity and rights.

“In my opinion, this is making a lot of noise about seniors and I don’t know why. They’re the safest thing around,” said Gabriel Tuffo, an octogenarian who drives himself to Kit Clark Senior Services on Dorchester Avenue in Fields Corner. Tuffo said that he is a safe driver with a clean record and can’t understand why the media and public officials seem to be picking on seniors when many younger drivers are also responsible for accidents.

Joe Huber, 81, stopped driving due to health reasons in his seventies and because he could no longer afford to pay for the accidents he was involved in. “I had a couple accidents,” Huber said, “I was in quite a few accidents.”

Having made the decision to give up driving himself, Huber sees some elderly drivers as dangers on the road.

“Today, I think its terrible the way they’re driving. Elderly people hitting people and driving the way they do,” said Huber. “They should have another test or something like that to prove it.”

Proposals have been made in the legislature that would mandate a Registry of Motor Vehicles road test once a Bay State driver’s license holder reaches a certain age, and further tests as the driver ages. Another bill would allow physicians to report a patient they think unfit to drive to the RMV for evaluation regardless of age.

Edda Knight, 86 of Talbot Ave. in Dorchester, stopped driving about a year ago and has been car-free since.

“My car went out, and I didn’t have it fixed so I didn’t bother about it no more,” she said. Knight doesn’t think that testing all older drivers would be fair, but knows that sometimes senior citizens may not have someone in their life who would step in if there was a problem with driving safety.

Making headway in the development of effective methods to deal with elderly drivers, the Drivewise program at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in the Longwood medical area focuses on a clinical examination and recommendation process for drivers based on a social work perspective.

“In our experience, I think we really see that the factors of aging, both the cognitive aspects, which are normal aging cognitive aspects and the physical aspects of aging that can affect driving safety, probably really begin to pick up at about 75,” said Lissa Kapust, MSW, the clinical coordinator for Drivewise.

Before a road test is conducted, Drivewise first examines the role driving plays in the driver’s life and takes into account what it would mean to lose that level of mobility.

“The bookends of the program are clinical social work,” Kapust said. After the driver is evaluated, a meeting with social workers, the driver and family members is held while the program’s clinical and medical recommendation is made.

Older drivers may think they don’t need to be tested, but Kapust said that it is more often the case that the drivers coming into her program, with an average age of around 79, are referred from family members, senior centers or doctors.

“What we’ve learned over the years is that the individual driver is usually not a very reliable reporter” of driving ability, she said.

Gismiene Deo, a 66-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who spends time at the Kit Clark center, hasn’t driven since she retired about six years ago. She said that it would be fair to test elderly drivers at age 65 and every five years after that for a driver to retain a license.

“There will always be accidents,” said Gabriel Tuffo, “so no matter what you do, young, old, anybody - there’ll always be an accident.”

“They’ve got to settle this thing down before they cause a lot of hardships on a lot of families,” Tuffo said.