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Hell on Wheels 

Are senior drivers safe drivers?

At first, police and local politicians were outraged when a memorial to officers slain in the line of duty was damaged and knocked down last month.

As it turned out, a 79-year-old woman had backed into the 1,500-pound stone memorial at Sharon Memorial Park, doing thousands of dollars of damage in the process. The woman, who was visiting a grave at the time, wasn't initially sure what she hit, but her family eventually pieced together what happened and contacted police after reading about the damaged memorial in the paper.

Relieved police officials announced that no charges would be filed against the woman, since the $2,000 in damage was unintentional and her family agreed to pay.

But important questions remained unanswered. According to the police report, the woman drove over a one-foot retaining wall, her car pushing against the monument with both wheels spinning. The vehicle eventually pushed the wall over and she drove over it, the report says. Should a woman who was unable to determine that she'd driven over a wall and knocked over a 1,500 pound stone monument be allowed behind the wheel again? And who would make sure it was safe for her to drive?

Three years after an elderly man mowed down 70 people while driving through a busy Santa Monica street market and killed 10 of them, it's a question many people are asking. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, this state and ultimately the nation will increasingly have to confront the elderly driving question as the first of 79 million baby boomers begin turning 60 this year. AAA estimates that by 2020, there will be more than 40 million drivers over the age of 65, more than double the 18.9 million in 2000.

Studies have repeatedly shown that the elderly rank second to teenagers as the most accident-prone drivers on our country's roads. But in North Carolina, there are still many ways these drivers can slip through the cracks. Only the Department of Motor Vehicles can revoke or restrict someone's license if it is found that a medical and/or emotional condition prevents them from driving safely. Unlike California and Pennsylvania, where physicians or caregivers are required to turn in potentially deadly drivers, North Carolina doesn't mandate that police, doctors or any other citizen turn in drivers whose faculties are failing.

In response to our questions about whether police intended to report the woman to the DMV, CMPD initially told Creative Loafing that officers met with her and that she seemed fine. CL later learned that one of the officers had filed a DMV report but had forgotten to note that in the police report.

At state DMV headquarters, a team combs through accident reports from across the North Carolina, looking for notations by law enforcement officers indicating that a driver involved in an accident might not be fit for the road.

"If an officer writes down that a driver didn't remember doing something or she fell asleep or her foot slipped off the pedal, we look at that," says Marge Howell, spokesperson for DMV. The driver is then retested by DMV and either passed, put on a medical program that limits their driving or relieved of their license.

But it's hardly a fail-safe strategy. It's common for officers to write very little in the narrative portion of an accident report.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Attorney Mark Newbold says that every officer who goes through training is taught how to fill out the DMV form and that the department makes copies of the form readily available to officers. But there is no department policy mandating that officers fill the forms out and turn them over to the DMV.

"We don't have a directive that says you will write a speeding ticket," says Newbold. "It's incumbent upon the officer to make that decision."

But even Newbold admits that officers already bogged down with paperwork might not report potential problem drivers to the DMV.

"Certainly that could slip through the cracks," says Newbold. "Certainly if an officer doesn't write it up, there could be a problem. They hit a tree this time, and two weeks later they are going down the road and they kill somebody. We're going to be coming back and asking, 'Why didn't we write this up?' I just don't think it falls into the category where we have to have another directive in our big thick book that says you must, you must, you must."

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, only New Hampshire, Illinois and the District of Columbia require the elderly to take road tests -- after 75. North Carolina doesn't require any age-related testing. A new state law that will take effect Jan. 1 increases the renewal period from five to eight years for all drivers except those over the age of 54, who must still renew their licenses every half-decade.

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