The first comment left on George Russell Weller's online obituary reads: "Let us not forget the grief that he caused."
Weller was 86 years old when he got behind the wheel of his 1992 Buick LeSabre and became responsible for one of the worst traffic accidents in U.S. history. Ten years ago, on July 16, 2003, Weller plowed through 2 ½ blocks of the Santa Monica, Calif., farmer's market, killing 10 people and seriously injuring 63 others. Witnesses testified that he stared straight ahead with both hands on the steering wheel while bodies flew over the hood of his car.
The accident took less than a minute, but left a mangled mess of bodies amongst the strawberries, raspberries and citrus fruits for sale that day. Among the dead included a married couple, a 3-year-old, a baby and a homeless man.
Accidents like Weller's are rare, but even a decade later the U.S. hasn't come up with a comprehensive way to handle the problem of aging drivers. Just last summer, a 100-year-old man got behind the wheel of his car and drove backwards down a sidewalk outside a school yard, hitting nine children and two adults. The problem could get much worse: the number of Americans over the age of 70 is set to explode in coming years, going from 28.5 million in 2011 and rising to 52.7 million in 2030, according to the U.S. Census.
"No part of society is equipped to deal with this [influx of elderly drivers], from here to Europe to Japan," said Carol-Ann Hamilton, author of 'Coping With Un-Cope-Able Parents: Loving Action For Eldercare.' "It doesn't matter where you are, the system is inadequate. They may recognize the issue, but they are certainly unprepared to deal with it."
In the U.S., efforts at dealing with the issue have been taken state-by-state or on a grassroots basis. Katherine Freund, founder of the Independent Transportation Network, a non-profit grassroots network that provides rides to seniors, launched ITN in 1988 after her 3-year-old son was struck by a car driven by an 84-year-old driver. Her son nearly died.
"When the farmer's market accident happened, I just sat down and cried, because it didn't have to happen," said Katherine Freund, founder of the ITN.
After the crash, while juggling treatments for her son's traumatic brain injury and other rehabilitation, Freund decided she needed to do something to make it easier for seniors to give up the keys. She launched the ITN to connect seniors who hang up their car keys with volunteers who can drive them around. She thought it would take just one year to fix the problem. But she's still chipping away.
Since the late 1980s, Freund said she's seen a big increase in the number of people working on fixing this issue. The problem can't just be solved by taking away people's right to drive, she argued. There needs to be an infrastructure in place to help people move around once they can no longer drive. Building that out -- through public transportation, or through volunteer programs -- takes a long time and commitment.
The issue is so multi-faceted, it's hard to find one single solution. People don't age the same way --
one 80-year-old may be vibrant and doing daily push ups, while another is weighed down by dementia and slowing reflexes. So simply banning people over a certain age from driving would be unfair. Driving is independence and many seniors rely on it in order to meet their daily social and survival needs. City dwellers have it easier once they stop driving, because they've got easier access to taxis and other public transportation, but in rural areas cutting people off from cars could mean cutting off their access to doctors, the supermarket, and simple human interaction.
"It's really a popular myth that older drivers are a menace on the road," Rader said.
In modern America, we mostly rely on older people to "self regulate" when they realize they're starting to slow down. Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, said research shows many of them do actually begin recognizing their own impairments. They start taking shorter trips, driving fewer miles and sticking to routes they know well. And they generally don't engage in risky behaviors like speeding, texting and drinking and driving.
"It's really a popular myth that older drivers are a menace on the road," Rader said.
Statistics show that older drivers have higher crash rates, including higher fatal rates, especially after age 75. But the number of accidents caused by elderly drivers is falling, said Rader, and the higher fatality rates can be attributed to older drivers' fragility. Seniors, it seems, are mostly a threat to themselves, not other drivers.
Still, tragic incidents like George Russell Weller's serve as stark reminders of the threats posed when some people lose motor skills and cognitive abilities. We currently don't have any tests or screening processes to determine which older drivers could pose a risk on the road. Only about half the states in the U.S. require additional screening for license renewal after someone hits a certain age. But the screenings are hardly comprehensive: Generally, it involves renewing your license in person at the DMV and taking a vision test.
The impact of these small hurdles has varied, according to IIHS, with some jurisdictions seeing fewer fatal accidents involving seniors, some seeing no change and some seeing an increase.
Developments in screening for at-risk seniors have come very slowly. With these conflicting statistics and the sure threat of "ageist" complaints and lawsuits, the government seems to be struggling to find ways to identify and restrict certain elderly drivers.
In 2003, the same year as the Weller tragedy, the University of Florida convened a meeting of experts to discuss older adults' driving performance, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of several screening tools for at-risk elderly drivers. The ensuing report showed that there was limited agreement on the effectiveness of these tools. Ten years later, in May 2013, a NHTSA-sponsored study did essentially the same thing, building off of the decade-old findings from the University of Florida.
The goal of the study wasn't to find and implement a system. Rather, it was to "guide future research" by reviewing tests and having the panel debate whether they were feasible to use at DMVs. The 47-page NHTSA study -- which looked at tests for things like visuospatial ability, executive function (using information from the environment to make decisions on the road), selective attention and short-term memory -- demonstrated little consensus from the experts. Most of the tests were found to be too expensive or difficult to administer at a DMV or in need of more research to find out if the tests could actually be effective, proving that we're not any closer to having official assessment or screening processes in place than we were ten years ago.
For now, the burden of determining whether an older adult is at-risk on the road falls to either the individual themselves or a family member. That's a necessary part of aging that people should prepare for, said Nancy Thompson, spokeswoman for the AARP. AARP provides classes for seniors to brush up on their driving skills, introducing older drivers to new technologies like adaptive cruise control, which can help cars brake before crashing into the car in front of them.
Families also need to pay attention, and talk to their parents or older relatives about taking away the keys when it becomes clear problems are on the rise. Thompson suggested letting your older relative drive when you go places so you can make a fair assessment of their ability. Also be on the lookout for dings and dents on their car, and pay attention if they start having minor accidents in parking lots or fender benders.
When you have the conversation, be prepared to offer alternatives.
"Driving is way more than a symbol of independence in America, it is a requirement for independence," Thompson said, noting that many drivers stop driving about 10 years before they die. "It is really important to help your parent figure out how they will get around once they hang up the keys."
Elderly driving is an issue that infuses a lot of Melissa Cronin's writing. The blogger and writer from Vermont was seriously injured in the Santa Monica farmer's market crash. The last thing she remembers before the crash is reaching for a peach, and then boom.
This spring, she wrote about watching an older driver maneuvering through the supermarket parking lot, driving through two stop signs without even slowing down. She considered going up to the driver later, as she walked down the aisle, but decided against it. She didn't want to be accused of seeming ageist.
"The truth is, I figured she would scream at me, and say, 'What if I were an 18-year-old, would you scold me then?'" she wrote. "Legitimate question ... What would you do?"
For more advice on how to talk to seniors about driving, click here.