KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A deadly accident outside a North Kansas City, Mo., church brings back concern about seniors behind the wheel.
Witnesses told North Kansas City Police that the driver was a man in his late 80s. They said he accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brakes outside the First Baptist Church on Iron Street Sunday morning, running into three people.
Ronald Barnett, who was holding his 11-month-old granddaughter Autumn Humphrey, and the child’s aunt, Stephanie Barnett, were both injured in the accident. Autumn was killed.
The driver, according to close friends, has a clean driving record and no health issues.
Annette Lewer is an occupational therapist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City. She tests drivers' physical, visual and cognitive abilities and has the tough task of determining when seniors should turn in their keys.
"My goal is to keep someone independent as long as they can be, yet after several attempts at correcting their behavior, sometimes we just cannot justify that person being on the road," she explained. "We have to make those calls, too."
Lewer uses several tests to determine a driver’s ability to get behind the wheel. She uses sensory and sight tests to gauge seniors' reflexes and reaction speeds. Often, a driving test carries the most weight in determining whether someone gets to keep their license.
Lewer said it’s always a tough conversation to have.
"Seniors, and drivers at all ages, don't want to hear from anyone that their driving isn't good," she said. "They're very protective of their driving and for good reason, because when the time does come that they have to retire from driving, their independence may be significantly limited."
Lewer explained it isn't uncommon for older drivers to make mistakes similar to the driver at the center of Sunday's deadly crash. Witnesses told North Kansas City Police that the driver put his car in reverse then hit the gas. He slammed into another vehicle, hit the victims, knocked over a fire hydrant, then squealed backwards more than 50 feet before coming to a stop.
"They may freeze. Occasionally, they accidentally hit the gas harder when they're meaning to pick up their foot and move it over to the brake," she said. "Other times they may not be able to feel where the brake pedal is, so they may overshoot or undershoot it."
Concern about senior citizens behind the wheel is growing throughout the country, after a 100-year-old driver backed over a group of schoolchildren in Los Angeles last month. Now, the federal government is proposing that all states take steps to address what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls “the real and growing problem of older driver safety”.
According to AAA, more seniors are on the road now than ever, with 34 million drivers age 65 or older. By 2030, that number will grow to 57 million. Drivers age 85 and older cause the highest rate of deadly crashes per mile.
Lewer recommends that seniors limit themselves to where and when they drive; for example, eliminating night or highway driving.
She also said relatives should join seniors in the car at least once a month.
Several organizations in Kansas City also offer free sessions to fit seniors into their cars, during which volunteers make adjustments to seats and mirrors as needed. The next free session for families will take place Thursday, Oct. 18 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Central Resource Library on 87th Street in Overland Park, Kan.
Missouri's driving laws for seniors are among the most relaxed in the country. After age 70, seniors may renew their license every three years without a vision, written or road test.
Kansas’ driving laws are stricter. They allow license renewals every 4 years for drivers age 65 and up. They do require a vision and written test for renewals. They also administer road tests at a physician or the examiner’s request.
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