Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

James Knowles, 19, practices his driving skills with instructor Hieu Tran, owner of Absolute Best Driving School, on Wednesday.

More older drivers, fewer teens behind the wheel in California

Published: Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 4, 2013 - 8:33 am

Kristine Chiu, a 19-year-old Mira Loma High School graduate and college student, is only now getting a driver's license after contentedly bumming rides from her parents during the last three years.

Dorothy Dublirer, a 94-year-old Carmichael resident, spent the last eight decades driving a car and rues the day – should it ever come – when she will have to give up her driver's license and the freedom it brings.

They represent two distinct, burgeoning trends that will profoundly affect highway safety in California: Fewer teens are driving, and more elderly seniors are hanging onto their licenses.

Researchers pay special attention to the youngest and oldest drivers because studies repeatedly show they are the most likely groups to be at fault when in car accidents. Like other states, California has a slew of rules targeted specifically at teens and older seniors.

For 16- and 17-year-old Californians, those rules include restrictions on when they can drive, whom they can ferry in their cars and how much training they need before earning a license. Implemented over the last 15 years, the rules have coincided with a dramatic decline in young drivers: The number of 16- and 17-year old drivers in the state fell almost 15 percent during the last decade, according to the latest figures from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

On the other end of the spectrum, California seniors over age 70 must take a written test and undergo a vision exam every five years. That differs from other age groups who usually can renew their licenses for up to 15 years without visiting a field office.

Despite the added restrictions for seniors, the number of drivers 85 and older in California has jumped more than 75 percent during the last decade, largely because residents are living and staying healthier longer.

Drivers over age 85 are the most likely group to be at fault when a car accident occurs, DMV figures show. They also get hurt and killed in car accidents more often than most other age groups, when adjusting for miles driven.

"We have a lot more of these senior drivers who are going to be on the road," said Scott V. Masten, research manager for the DMV's department of research and development, referring to an upcoming tide of baby boomers that will push the number of older drivers even higher.

Teens get into wrecks and get traffic tickets more often than any other age group, mostly due to their inexperience and lack of maturity. Each year, about 3 percent of California's 16-year-old drivers experience a crash involving an injury, state figures show.

"Driving is a complex task," Masten said. "When we are learning a complex task, we make mistakes."

More seniors keep driving

For many senior citizens, driving a car means independence. They can go to the store, visit family and friends and take trips without relying on others for transportation.

"We went to Mammoth Lakes last month for the Jazz Jubilee," said Doug Darmsted, 88, who still drives on vacations with his wife, Marian, 87. He was describing a multi-hour car trip over a Sierra mountain pass.

Darmsted, who lives in Eskaton Village Carmichael, said he is more cautious these days when he drives, particularly since he has lost sight in one of his eyes. He knows that one day he may have to stop driving – but not yet.

"I'm not looking forward to it," he said.

Californians over age 85 are among the fastest-growing groups in the state. During the last decade, their numbers increased by more than 50 percent, or 200,000.

And within the next 25 years, according to state Department of Finance projections, the number of seniors over 85 will almost triple.

If current trends hold, about one of every 40 drivers in the state will be 85 or older by 2040, compared with about one of every 80 today.

While the number of seniors has grown, so has the proportion who keep their driver's licenses, state figures show. A decade ago, about 35 percent of seniors 85 and older held driver's licenses; today, that figure has risen to 45 percent.

Men are especially loath to give up their licenses. Almost two-thirds of men over 85 in California still drive, state figures show.

"I go to medical appointments, to my wife's burial site in East Lawn, up to El Dorado Hills to have dinner," said Jim Jackson, 91, who also lives in Eskaton Village Carmichael. He just bought a new Lexus RX 350.

In many ways, seniors are usually safe drivers. Compared with other drivers, they rarely get traffic citations, state figures show, and often drive slowly and cautiously.

Many seniors hold onto their licenses merely in case of an emergency. These seniors rarely drive, but like to keep the option available.

"I drive more carefully," said Dublirer, describing how her driving habits have changed. "I never exceed the speed limit unless I absolutely have to."

Still, seniors' age and accompanying health problems can be dangerous on the road. Adjusted for miles driven, seniors 85 and older are more likely to be involved in wrecks – and to die in wrecks – than any other age group except teens, state figures show.

"Your body gets frail," Masten said. "Eighty-five-year-olds in a wreck – their bodies just get hurt easier."

The state DMV does not discourage seniors from driving if they are able; it has a senior ombudsman program that helps them stay on the road.

The ombudsmen primarily serve as intermediaries between officials and senior citizens. Their charge is to ensure that senior drivers are treated fairly and in accordance with the law.

"People don't want to lose their last freedom," said Pat Beal, executive director of the Senior Center of Elk Grove.

Teens weigh pros, cons

In contrast to older seniors, teens often feel their bodies are invincible – and they sometimes drive accordingly.

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are four times as likely to be involved in crashes with injuries as other age groups, and twice as likely to get traffic tickets, state figures show.

Some teens said they are aware of those statistics – and that they played into the decision to put off driving.

"From what I understand, 16- or 17-year-olds tend to be reckless," said Chiu, the 19-year-old just now getting her license.

Other teens cited the cost of insurance, gas and a car as reasons they decided to wait. It's also easier than ever for teens to stay in touch without driving around, thanks to texting and social media.

"It didn't matter to me about driving until now," said James Knowles, who recently graduated from Monterey Trail High School in Elk Grove and wants to drive to Cosumnes River College, where he is taking classes.

But one of the biggest factors in the decline, experts say, is the difficulty of getting a license today, and the restrictions placed on teen drivers.

Many public schools have dropped driver's ed programs, forcing 16- and 17-year-olds to pay for required training. State laws enacted in 1998 and 2006 prohibit first-year drivers under 18 from taking the wheel after 11 p.m. and from driving with other teens in the car.

Those rules don't apply after age 18; at that point, Californians aren't even required to take driver's education classes, though many still do.

By age 20, more than two-thirds of Californians have a driver's license.

"My business is still thriving," said Hieu Tran, who owns and operates Absolute Best Driving School in Sacramento. He was teaching Knowles to drive this week. "I get a lot of 19- or 20-year-olds instead of 15- or 16-year-olds."

Fatal car accident rates across the state and nation have fallen over the last decade. Some experts and policy makers believe that trend is partially due to laws aimed at restricting driving among teens.

One bill in the Legislature, AB 724, sponsored by Rancho Cordova Democratic Assemblyman Ken Cooley, would have applied many of the requirements and restrictions placed on 16- and 17-year-olds to 18- and 19-year-olds. The bill stalled in May in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

"A lot of them, they don't have the support system at home anymore" so 18- and 19-year-olds could use extra training and caution, said Henning Mortensen, owner of Bond Driving School in Sacramento.

Call The Bee's Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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