Alvin Stark had always been a safe driver, alert and careful on the road. But as he entered his mid-80s, the former Wall Street compliance examiner began having medical issues that could affect his driving.
He would lose his balance while walking — spinal stenosis was putting pressure on his neck, causing neurological damage — and he needed cataract surgery to correct his failing eyesight.
Stark's son, Ric, began to worry about his father's safety on the road: It was time to have "the talk" about "driving retirement."
"Dad wasn't happy but he's a smart man," said Ric Stark, 49, a physics teacher from Oceanside. "He realized his situation and gave in to it."
Alvin Stark, 85, who now lives at Atria senior living center in Lynbrook, said giving up his 2015 Buick Regal was a difficult decision. The lack of a car limits his mobility and independence, while serving as yet another reminder about the unforgiving aging process.
"It's kind of tough but all I can do is grin and bear it," he said. "If I'm being honest, I don't think I have the facilities right now to drive."
While Stark reluctantly gave up his car keys, thousands of Americans wait too long to have the difficult conversation with their loved ones, according to AAA Northeast, a Garden City-based transportation advocacy group.
Researchers at the AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety issued a national report Tuesday which found that only 17 percent of older drivers — defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as ages 65 and older — reported ever speaking to a family member or a physician about their driving safety.
Among those who did have a conversation, 65 percent said it was related to safety concerns, such as falling asleep while driving or having difficulty staying in a lane, while 15 percent said it was prompted by a crash or traffic infraction.
AAA Northeast spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr. said seniors and their families should begin planning for driving retirement at roughly the same time they begin planning for retirement from work.
“This research shows that older drivers can be hesitant to initiate conversations about their driving capabilities, so it is important that families encourage them to talk early and often about their future behind the wheel," Sinclair said. "With early discussion and proper planning, elderly drivers may extend their time on the road.”
For some, the insistence by older motorists to keep driving can have lasting consequences.
Amy Musnik said she was jogging on Jericho Turnpike in Woodbury June 15 when she was struck by an 89-year-old driver who rode up on the shoulder of the busy roadway. Musnik, 39, of Woodbury, suffered a partially detached ear, a concussion, herniated disk, torn esophagus and multiple facial lacerations. The driver was not charged, she said.
"At 89 years old, some people think they can still do all the things that they've always done. But they can't," said Musnik, a stay-at-home mom. "I understand that it's sensitive and it's a hard call. But people need to be having these conversations."
Others say elder drivers are more than capable of continuing to drive — with the proper precautions.
Grace Black, 76, of Northport, said she now drives only during the day, travels slower and goes shorter distances, largely avoiding highways and parkways. And while she has yet to have a conversation with family members or a doctor about her driving, Black believes she will know the right time to put down the car keys.
"I'm not ready yet," said Black, who recently organized a safe driving course at her church to educate friends who are having challenges on the road. "I hope I will know the right time to stop driving. But hopefully that's years away."
Over the past decade, there has been a nearly 18 percent uptick in traffic fatalities involving older drivers, from 6,169 in 2007 to 7,256 in 2016, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
In New York, older drivers were involved in more than 51,000 crashes in 2016, killing 226 people and injuring more than 28,000, according to the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research, an Albany-based group that supports safe driving. Those numbers are on the rise from 2009 when seniors had about 44,000 accidents, killing 193 people and injuring less than 26,000, the institute reported.
Experts note that the increase in crashes among older drivers can be linked to demographics as baby boomers continue to live and work longer.
In 2016, 19 percent of all drivers, or 41.7 million Americans, were 65 or older, federal data show. In 2007, 15 percent of all motorists, or 27.5 million Americans, were 65 or older.
The rapid growth of older drivers has some concerned.
Friends and family of 17-year-old Madeline Shershen, a junior at St. Francis Prep High School in Fresh Meadows who was struck and killed by an 88-year-old driver in Whitestone, Queens, in June, launched a campaign to require mandatory driver's license renewals every two years for individuals 80 or older.
The driver who hit Shershen, Sheila Kahn-Prager of Whitestone, ran a red light and told police she did not see the teen, authorities said. Kahn-Prager, who did not return a call for comment, was charged with running a red light, failing to exercise due care and failing to yield to a pedestrian. She was issued a desk appearance ticket and released on her own recognizance.
New York State driver's licenses currently must be renewed every eight years, as compared with every four years in New Jersey and every six years in Connecticut. New York's DMV says it cannot treat license holders differently because of their age and that all drivers must pass a vision test to renew their licenses.
Rita Barravecchio, Shershen's aunt, says more needs to be done. An online petition to change the law now has more than 23,000 signatures. Barravecchio hopes to use the petition to motivate state lawmakers to change the law, including requiring older motorists to get a full examination from their physician before the DMV renews their license
"They are only testing forward vision," Barravecchio said. "They're not testing the peripheral vision or the reaction and response time."
More than a year into his driver retirement, Alvin Stark acknowledges he should not be driving, but he still wonders what it would be like to get back behind the wheel.
"I think I would be OK," Stark said with a slight laugh. "But who knows?"
When families talk with older drivers
AAA Northeast recommends that families begin talking with older adults about safe driving early and avoid waiting for "red flags" like crashes, scrapes on the car, new medical diagnoses or worsening health conditions. When talking to an older driver, AAA recommends that families should:
- Start early and talk often: Be positive and supportive and focus on ways to help keep them safe when behind the wheel, including alternative forms of transportation available to older drivers.
- Avoid generalizations: Don't jump to conclusions about an older driver’s skills or abilities.
- Speak one-on-one: Keep the discussion between you and the older driver. Inviting the whole family to the conversation can create feelings of alienation or anger.
- Focus on the facts: Stick to information you know, such as a medical condition or medication regimen that could make driving unsafe. Do not accuse an older driver of being unsafe or assume that driving should be stopped altogether.
- Plan together: Allow the older driver to play an active role in developing the plan for their driving retirement.
Source: AAA Northeast