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Digging Deeper: At what age do drivers reach the end of the road?

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MADISON (WKOW) -- It's a difficult question plaguing loved ones and aging drivers alike. Is someone too old to drive?

According to doctors, there's no magic age when drivers should hang up their keys, but reaction time, vision and awareness can all suffer as drivers get older or face deteriorating health.

A wake up call for drivers

For 84-year-old Sue Kislia, it just took one wake up call.

"It was in the summer, the sun was out, it was hot," she said. "And I think a combination of all those things made my eyes just close."

Kislia said as her diabetes worsened, she occasionally slipped out of consciousness. It only took her one time behind the wheel to realize, it wasn't safe.

"Probably fear was my biggest feeling," she said. "Nothing happened, but I thought my luck's gonna run out, one of these days. I'm gonna hit someone and I could not live with myself if I hurt someone else."

For 82-year-old Raymond Geen, the decision was made for him.

"I must've put on the accelerator in front of the church and went right through the glass doors," he said.

No one was hurt and the church was able to rebuild but Geen's decades of driving were over.

"They said we gotta take your license away," he said.

A statewide impact

In Wisconsin there are more than 83,000 licensed drivers over 85 and more than 350,000 over 75.

Twenty years from now, a quarter of Wisconsin's population is expected to be over 65 and once those drivers hit 70, their likelihood of being involved in an accident starts rising.

27 News obtained a week of driver and condition or behavior reports submitted to Wisconsin's DMV describing the impact medically impaired drivers are having on the road.

In one week, police across the state reported 36 cases of drivers appearing disoriented, suffering from poor vision or blacking out on the road.

One case from DeForest describes a woman in her 70s driving through backyards before getting her vehicle stuck.

"The driver was very disoriented and did not know where she was or that she was not on a roadway," the report reads.

Another report out of Saukville describes a driver who was unable to stay in his own lane. When officers pulled him over, the driver showed no signs of impairment but explained he was receiving cataracts treatment.

"When [the officer] gave the subject his driver's license back, he had difficulty seeing and grabbing the ID," the report read.

Still, older drivers are not considered the most dangerous drivers on the road.

According to WisDOT statistics, drivers over 65 accounted for one in ten crashes last year across the state, half as many as drivers under 25.

WisDOT claims that's likely because older drivers are less likely to speed, drink or drive distracted. There are also far fewer drivers in each 10-year age group once drivers hit 65.

Evaluating a driver's fitness

Doctors like MaryAnn Roelke, an occupational therapist with UnityPoint Health, are there to help. She specializes in testing a driver's ability when they do face safety or medical concerns.

"Driving is really automatic and we tend to think we've been doing it so long there is no issue and it's easy to do," she said. "But there's like 60 decisions that we make in like a minute while we're driving."

Roelke said she sees drivers of all ages but a majority of her patients are older, as aging often brings additional challenges.

"Their thinking speed might be a little bit slower or how they physically get to the gas and brake is a little bit slower," she said.

Roelke's clinic has a variety of tools to give her an objective measure of that fitness. She said her favorite is the Dynavision test, which requires patients to find and press buttons as they light up.

"[It shows] thinking skills, how they divide their attention, how they notice things in their periphery," she said. "Lots of people have differing challenges with any of those components so it helps me see how they put all those pieces together."

Once Roelke compiles that data she said most of her recommendations aren't all or nothing. She said a majority are conditional for each driver's strengths and weaknesses.

"Yes you can drive but it's a good idea not to drive on roads posted 45 mph or greater," she said. "Or yes you can drive but you know probably not a good idea to drive at night."

Leaving the road behind

Kislia decided an all or nothing approach was best for her and her family.

"I didn't want them to have to tell me, 'Quit driving mom.' Cause that's a tough decision for kids to make," she said.

Geen said he misses his car everyday.

"But life changes I guess and I'm not the young chicken anymore," he said.

Roelke understands taking the keys away is never an easy decision.

"We know that being able to drive in our society this day keeps people living in their homes, keeping them independent," she said.

For most families, she said it should come after a long discussion about a driver's strengths and weaknesses and what support the family can provide.

"Having a family conversation is really important," she said. "There's so much conflict in families about driving and if that individual doesn't see that same, doesn't see eye-to-eye with those concerns then it's a good idea to talk to your doctor about it."

Still, Kislia believes most drivers know when they've reached the end of the road.

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Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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