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Survey: To keep cars, older drivers adjust

The area's older drivers will make concessions, such as less night driving, to keep the right to drive.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published March 3, 2004

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A survey finds that while the area's older drivers cling to their cars, they'll make concessions to stay on the road.

Marjorie Marks, 82, loves her red 1997 Grand Am and the freedom it represents - but not after sundown. Bright headlights play tricks with her eyes so she restricts her driving to daylight.

"I'm not going to do something stupid," said the St. Petersburg resident. "although some people do."

Her precautions are typical of Tampa Bay's older drivers, a survey released Tuesday shows.

Three out of four older drivers changed their habits as they aged, the survey showed. They drove less frequently and more slowly. They planned car trips more carefully and avoided rush hour.

What they didn't do was take the bus.

"Older drivers are heavily dependent on their cars, but willing to adjust," said Sue Samson, driving specialist at the Area Agency on Aging, which conducted the survey on behalf of the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration.

The survey was commissioned last year amid a national debate on driving safety. An elderly California man had recently plowed into a crowded street market. Florida had passed new vision tests for people 80 and older. Transportation experts noted that slow reaction times and tight fields of vision often accompany normal aging.

The survey, of 420 Tampa Bay residents aged 65 and older, showed that most older drivers try to stay safe by voluntarily changing their lives.

Two out of five avoid night driving; one-third avoid rush hour; one-fourth drive less, and one-fifth slow down, stay closer to home and plan ahead.

These changes take a toll: Almost one in five older drivers said driving concerns had caused them to cut back on entertainment and recreation.

Their No. 1 peeve on the road? Aggressive drivers, hands down.

Samson assesses older drivers at the area aging agency. "We try to teach them to leave three seconds between them and the car ahead of them, but you can't do that anymore," said Samson, who commutes along Ulmerton Road.

"I can't tell you how many little black Miatas, or small cars with aggressive drivers, are moving in and out. If you leave any space at all, somebody cuts you off."

Old drivers living in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough Counties were interviewed for the survey. Similar studies were conducted in Chicago, Syracuse, N.Y., San Mateo, Calif., and Davenport, Iowa, all of which outscored the Tampa Bay area on use of public transportation.

In this area, only 3 percent of older drivers said they had used public transit during the two weeks that preceded the survey. Without their cars, almost four of five said they couldn't go where they needed to go.

"People who have driven all their lives hang onto the idea of driving sometimes beyond what should occur," said Sharon Dent, director of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. "They don't go to the effort to find out how to use public transit until it is past time they need to."

Long treks to bus stops and hot, unpleasant waits discourage older bus riders, Dent said. "Usage increases dramatically if they live within a block of the bus stop and the sidewalks and shelters are good."

Drivers responding to the survey agreed. Their top reasons for not using buses were: Problems getting to the stop; it takes too much time; the routes go to the wrong places and they don't know how to use the system.

Marks said she doesn't even know where the nearest bus stop is.

Few older drivers walk to shopping, doctors or the movies because of bad weather, long distances, lousy sidewalks and hazardous intersections.

"If I were in my 70s and I had to cross six lanes of traffic, I'd think twice, too," said Roger Sweeney, director of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

To attract older drivers, both Pinellas and Hillsborough are developing new bus transfer hubs with restrooms and shaded or air-conditioned shelters. Clearwater Mall, Central Plaza in St. Petersburg, Marion Street in downtown Tampa and the veterans hospital in Tampa are prime examples.

Pinellas is shifting to more buses with lower steps and easier access. Hillsborough has been spending about $200,000 a year to upgrade shelters and extend sidewalks into neighborhoods, particularly along Nebraska Avenue.

"Most sidewalks, when they exist, are 5 feet wide, with no grassy barrier between the sidewalk and the road," Dent said. "People who are elderly feel this is a really hostile environment. Public transit cannot exist unless we have a pedestrian environment."

[Last modified March 3, 2004, 01:45:07]


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