Walk on the Wild Side

September 12, 2013 was a perfect, clear summer afternoon and a great day for a walk. It was nearly my last.


Goldie and I are on the corner of High Point and Old Sauk Roads waiting for the walk light. It flashes, the intersection is clear, and away we go. A few steps out, I notice a silver car moving quickly toward the intersection to make a left turn. But she doesn't appear to be slowing down so I did a quick back step with the dog, just in case. In a second or two the gray-haired elder sped right through the crosswalk at full speed! I stared at her as she proceeded through the crosswalk, aghast at what had just transpired. During this moment, we locked eyes. Her expression was one of bewilderment: What on earth is your problem?

Back safely at the curb, I stood there for about two minutes thinking about what just happened and how I almost bought the ranch. I wrote down her three-letter license plate number, car description and time on my phone notebook so I could accurately report what happened.

 Had I not moved backward, I am certain she would have killed me at that rate of speed. You read about these elderly folks who hit pedestrians and they say they didn't notice anything was amiss until impact. That would have been my fate on this day.

My friend Jay, to whom I told this story, said, "Wouldn't you have at least been able to jump up so you would have hit the windshield?" Who knows what I might have done or been able to do instinctively, holding a leash, just prior to impact. But as a best case scenario, imagine getting smacked into the windshield by a car going 30 MPH, going airborne and landing on the asphalt. Probably better than getting run over, but not by much. Perhaps I would only suffered a broken neck or back.

I did report this incident to the police, my city council member and legislators. There is a bill pending from State Senator Fred Risser which would require more testing for drivers over age 75. There are no special rules related to age for drivers in Wisconsin now. Under Risser's bill, the elderly would have to get tested every four years instead of every eight and they'd also have to pass a skills test. This is a perfectly reasonable proposal, yet the AARP opposes it because it's discriminatory. I can't fathom what an elderly person who is clear-minded has to fear. If you're so convinced you're mentally sharp enough to drive, just prove it with a simple test.

The fact is the older we get, the greater our chances of having difficulties behind the wheel. Crashes among the elderly are on par with the unusally high rates of inexperienced teen drivers.

"Vision, hearing, motor skills, and reaction times do tend to decline as a person ages, whether because of the aging process itself or because of the increased incidence of diseases such as arthritis, glaucoma, and others during advanced age," according to Wisconsin Briefs, published by Wisconsin's Legislative Reference Bureau.

Guess what folks? We're going to see way more of this. Way more. The Wisconsin DOT projects that by 2025, one in five Wisconsin residents will be age 65 or older. What's most alarming, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Motor vehicle crash deaths per capita among men and women begin to increase markedly starting at ages 75 to 79," according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics from 2009."

I've experienced this elder driver problem in multiple other ways, too. An older friend gave me a ride home from downtown Madison to the west side and during that trip, he nearly went right through a stop sign, almost hit a pedestrian on a street with a lot of construction going on and a couple of other less obvious infractions. It was one scary ride!

I also recall exiting a church after a friend's wedding and heard the squealing of tires as an elderly woman backed up at a high rate of speed right into one of the parked cars. Had somebody been behind her, there would have been a funeral. She apparently jammed the accelerator instead of the brake pedal.

This issue also has affected my own family. My late father was struggling in the final years of his life and everybody in my family agreed it was not safe for him to drive any more. 

"You don't think I'm a good driver?" Dad asked me sincerely. "It's not your fault," I told him. "You've got some health problems that are preventing you from driving safely." In a good moment, I was able to convince him to voluntarily surrender his license.

But we neglected to take the keys away while we figured out what to do with his car. A short time later, Dad showed up at my sister's house about eight miles away. He had forgotten all about giving up his license and just hopped in the car and drove there—without auto insurance, mind you.

From that point on, he blamed me for taking away his car and it was a small rift between us. It's not an easy conversation to have with anybody because the perceived loss of independence is paramount for an older person. Nevertheless, impaired drivers have to stay off the road. 

Learn more about the problem and don't be shy about contacting the police and/or the DOT if you experience or witness something like this. Please also consider contacting your state legislators and encourage them to support Senator Risser's bill.

One day you or a family member might be the one in the crosswalk with a car barreling toward you.

Posted on September 24, 2013 .