Darien accident raises questions about safety of elderly drivers

Cops, public can prompt medical license reviews

The 89-year-old Stamford man charged with evading responsibility for striking a 15-year-old boy surrendered his driver's license this week to Darien police, after having told them he was not aware he had hit anyone, the department's top accident investigator said.

"He was very cooperative and realized that he probably shouldn't be driving due to the fact he hadn't realized he hit someone," Sgt. Jeremiah Marron said.

Police would have been required to confiscate and suspend Paul Plepis' license and send it to the Department Motor Vehicles, Marron said. The agency then would conduct a review to measure whether medical factors justified barring him from regaining driving privileges.

The teenager, who was reported to have suffered serious head injuries, is now recovering at home, according to police. He was struck Saturday on Hoyt Street near the Stamford border.

"I don't think he has any interest in getting back behind the wheel any time soon," Plepis' Stamford-based attorney, Mark Sherman, said of his client.

Marron said assessing the abilities of senior citizens affected by medical conditions and how their ability to drive safely is often a more difficult call.

"Today, I'm seeing a larger number of elderly drivers on the road," Marron said, citing the large population of baby boomers becoming senior citizens. "When you talk about withdrawing or seizing their license, it is an extremely sensitive topic . . . you're basically taking away their freedom. "

While the DMV requires drivers 65 and older to renew their licenses in person every two years, the agency has no provisions targeting additional written or road test requirements to gauge older drivers' medical fitness to drive, spokesman Bill Seymour said.

Police can report concerns about a driver's skills or medical condition after an accident or violation, as can concerned personal physicians or third parties by sworn affidavits, Seymour said.

The DMV's Medical Qualifications Unit reviews the reports and determines if limits and other conditions should be placed on a driver's license or if a license should be withdrawn, Seymour said.

"There are no specific statutes relating to any driver of a particular age that requires that we do something more when renewing their license," Seymour said. "A police officer can do an immediate withdrawal and mail the license back to us, which triggers an evaluation."

The DMV does not track the number of licenses it suspends for medical reasons, but police last year reported 852 drivers to the department for medical evaluations of their ability to drive safely. The DMV withdrew more than 1,200 licenses on medical grounds. The unit reviewed more than 3,100 license holders for possible medical problems, Seymour said.

According to a study by the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts research on ways to prevent crashes, older drivers are keeping their licenses longer and becoming a bigger part of the overall driving population as the baby boomer generation ages.

The institute's study of fatal crashes between 1997 and 2008 showed 27 percent fewer drivers ages 70 and older died in auto collisions in 2008 than in 1997, though a greater proportion of those 70 and older continue to die than their younger counterparts, which may reflect the elderly are typically more susceptible to injury, institute spokesman Russ Rader said.

"Their involvement in fatal crashes or serious crashes is actually plunging for the past 10 years, though they remain more likely to die in crashes," he said.

Rader said the institute recommends that states enact policies requiring drivers over 65 to renew their licenses in person rather than by mail on the rationale that the simple pressure of an in-person visit can prompt self-reflection on their driving skills.

"Right now, there isn't a test that has been found that you can point to to give to older drivers to winnow out the ones who might be dangerous on the road," Rader said. "But just requiring older people to come in person has been shown to have some impact, making drivers recognize their own limitations to give up their license rather than appear at the DMV office."

Marcia O'Kane, executive director of the Stamford Senior Center, said driving safety for senior citizens is related to the availability of public transportation for older citizens, often on a fixed income, who wish to remain independent.

"They are becoming increasingly reliant on public transportation, and the big question is what's affordable to them versus what's available," O'Kane said. "Some seniors live in areas of Stamford where buses and trains don't reach, and it can be very frustrating for them."

Stamford police seize the licenses of impaired drivers once or twice a month, said Sgt. Andrew Gallagher, head of the department's accident investigations unit. Most licenses are taken from drivers over 65 who are involved in accidents, but occasionally because of inexplicable instances erratic driving.

When called upon to discuss safe driving at senior driving courses such as the AARP's 55 and Alive, Gallagher advises older people to recognize their limitations and restrict their driving.

"When they realize they can't see well at night, you hope they will learn to police themselves," Gallagher said. "You don't go out at night and try to schedule your appointments after commuter rush hour when it is safer."

The AARP offers a driver safety course for those 50 and over which reached more than 14,000 people last year across the state. Classes are held in Stamford and Norwalk, said Jennifer Millea, an AARP spokeswoman.

The course covers changes in road regulations, defensive driving tactics, negotiating busy intersections and handling road rage. It entitles graduates to a discount on auto insurance.

The group encourages family members to be involved in assessing and encouraging older relatives to recognize when it might be time to give up driving, she said.

"We are all responsible for keeping up our skills and monitoring our loved ones' driving -- old and young, parents or adult children," Millea said. "AARP's policy on older drivers centers on safety for all users of the road and supports a multifaceted approach to safe driving."

Staff Writer Martin B. Cassidy can be reached at martin.cassidy@scni.com