Two calls came in to police headquarters Tuesday afternoon, reporting that a Honda Civic was driving up and down Reef Road, weaving wildly across the width of the street. Police traced the license plate to a nearby home. An officer showed up there and found the car parked in the garage.
The officer knocked on the door.
A 96-year-old man answered. The man appeared to be completely confused, the officer wrote in his report. The man's clothes were reportedly tattered and he wore two different shoes. Asked if he had been driving on Reef Road earlier, the man said he couldn't remember. He didn't know what day it was, the report said. He couldn't recall the name of the president.
Police were able to contact the man's son, who lives in California. The son said that his father has no family in the area, the report said. He said his father has been confused for the past six months and that he shouldn't be driving. He asked the cops to impound the car.
The cops didn't impound the car, but they did seize the man's driver's license and keys.
The incident, fortunately without injury, marked the end to a situation that, inevitably, everyone could face. As people age, their ability to drive safely deteriorates. And at some point, most have to give up driving altogether. Determining how and when, though, is no easy task.
"Many people reduce their driving in stages," said Maybeth Wirz, program coordinator at
Westport's senior services office. "They'll stop driving at night, or in bad weather, or on the thruway. It's often a responsible thing to do. But some don't. And that's a particularly scary thing for the person's family."
It can also be dangerous to everyone on the road.
One study, cited by the State Department of Social Services, states that nighttime vision can weaken perceptibly by the time people reach 40. By 60, the department's pamphlet states, people need three times more light to drive safely at night than they do when they're 20. Physical and mental ailments can slow down reaction time, too, the pamphlet notes. And one out of three senior citizens has suffered some degree of hearing loss.
But people age at different rates. And their various faculties weaken at different speeds, too. Moreover, giving up one's license can be a terrible blow to one's independence. Fortunately, there are alternatives for seniors to driving on their own. And more options are on the way.
"Driving is one of the last vestiges of freedom for many senior citizens," said Sgt. James Perez, the spokesman for the Fairfield Police Department. At traffic stops and accidents, Perez said, officers have to make quick assessments of a senior driver's capabilities. They observe the driver's awareness, appearance and ability to handle paperwork. They look for large amounts of prescription medicine from different doctors. They note the driver's degree of coordination.
"We understand that for many senior citizens driving is one of their last privileges," Perez said. "We take this seriously. We're not just going to take someone's license away because they're a senior citizen, but some circumstances do warrant that we take it."
If an officer choses to, he or she has the right to confiscate a license and forward it to the Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) commissioner's office. Doing so begins a process that can lead to the license being outright revoked or reinstated on a limited basis.
That decision comes from DMV's Medical Review Division, which includes an advisory board that reviews pertinent medical records, an optometrist and physicians who specialize in different conditions. The applicant undergoes a review and then must pass an on-the-road skills test.
If successful, the applicant receives a limited license that allows him or her to carry out daily tasks "without hardship as well as maintain [his] self-respect, dignity and mobility," according to a pamphlet for the state's social services department. It adds: "In issuing a limited license, the DMV also takes into consideration the safety of other highway users."
Not everyone will pass. This is where local organizations can help.
In Tuesday's case, police completed an outreach referral form and turned it over to the town's Human and Social Services Department, located at 100 Mona Terrace. That office will send a social worker to the man's house -- as it does with every such case -- to determine his specific areas of need. In some cases, that will simply mean help in transitioning to post-driving life.
"The social worker does not go in as a bully, but to solve a problem," said Hank Steffens, dispatcher at the Fairfield Senior Center. "Most people know they have a driving problem but don't want to give it up. The social worker has to convince them. Most of the time, there are good results."
Seniors are introduced to the town's transportation bus service. Fairfield, said Claire Grace, director of the senior center, has one of the best bus systems in the county. For 50 cents a ride, buses shuttle ticket-holders to and from the senior center, to doctors appointments and to stores for shopping.
For more information on the program, contact the senior center at (203) 256-3168 between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
"By giving up your license, you become dependant on someone else," Steffens said as he explained one advantage to the bus system. "If someone has a bad back, we can be their whipping boy. They can yell at us all they want about [it] as we bring them to their doctor. But if they have a friend driving them and they're yelling, well that's going to wear on [the friend] eventually."
Soon, there will be another option. This fall, a national nonprofit organization, ITNAmerica, will open shop in this part of Fairfield County. The local outfit, which will be called ITN Coastal CT, will feature both volunteer and paid drivers who will be available for driving seniors to appointments, to stores, to friends and family or anywhere else, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"The idea of this is to replicate everything about having a car in the driveway," said Leslie Wolfe, the program's director.
Currently, the organization is raising funds. It hopes to ensure the option will be available for years to come, Wolfe said. This summer, it will operate in a limited capacity as it works out scheduling and kinks. To get involved, visit www.itncoastalct.org/.
Typically, senior citizens keep their licenses well beyond the point they should, Wolfe said. On average, men live six more years after they do stop driving and women generally live 10 more years.
"If they would have given up their license earlier, that number would go up," Wolfe said.