November 01, 2016

Senior Driving: a View from the Bench

Hon. Freddrenna M. Lyle

“Wow,” you think to yourself. “When did they put that stop sign there?” As you sit on the side of the road awaiting the police officer, each pass of the flashing lights raises your blood pressure. Heart pumping, you fumble through your glove compartment for your registration and insurance. Soon, the officer hands you a ticket and, depending on the violation, shows you when and where you are to appear before a judge. As you drive home, you think about your last traffic ticket some forty-two years ago. The number triggers the recognition that you are now a senior citizen, and suddenly, you begin to imagine the loss of your driving privileges. Fear sets in.

An appearance in traffic court begins with the issuance of a traffic citation. From vehicle malfunctions, such as broken tail lights, to major moving violations, such as driving under the influence, a ticket may require you to appear before a judge to answer the charge. Most tickets received by mature drivers are for sign or signal violations and turning or lane violations; however, there are some seniors involved in very serious traffic matters. For the sake of this discussion, we assume your ticket is for lesser types of infractions. Calm down and know that you aren’t the first and won’t be the last older citizen to appear in traffic court. This article seeks to ease your anxiety level about what to expect when you get there.

First, seniors tend to be very conscientious, so you will undoubtedly take the matter seriously. Don’t, however, make yourself sick from worry. Think about the incident and try to remember if there were any physical factors that might have contributed to your violation (i.e., difficulty seeing in the dark, fatigue, rushing home because of urinary urgency, etc.).

Second, this might be a good time to tell friends and family about the ticket. They may have appeared in court more recently than you and have information on the process that will be helpful. Talking with a family member can also give you another perspective on just how well you are driving. They can help you decide whether the type of ticket received requires you to hire an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, aren’t sure if you need an attorney, or decide against an attorney, you can appear on your own behalf. Again, don’t be frightened: there will be others in court without attorneys. Judges and court personnel are accustomed to self-represented litigants. It is important to note, however, that those involved in more serious incidents, particularly those where criminal charges are pending, should consult an attorney.

A few days before your court date, gather your insurance and registration documents to take with you so that you won’t be harried the morning of your appearance. Make sure you take your medicine and eat breakfast before you go, as you can’t predict how long you will be there. Enlist the friend or relative you spoke with to attend court with you. There might be lines, signs, and directions that can be more easily seen with multiple sets of eyes.

Arrive at court a little early so that you can find your room and check in with the clerk. Once court begins you may not be able to speak to the clerk until there is a break in the proceedings. During this time, you can tell the clerk if you have any physical, language, mobility, visual, or auditory issues that would require special accommodations. If you have medical conditions that would require you to leave the courtroom from time-to-time, this is your opportunity to tell the clerk or deputy. By arriving early, you might be afforded priority in having your case called. If possible, try to sit close to the front so that you can see and hear other cases while you wait for your case to be called.

“Is the judge going to look at me and think I’m too old?” There is no need to worry that the judge will look at you and think you’re too old to drive. Judges decide cases based upon the facts presented to them. The judge will hear from the prosecuting attorney first and then allow you to answer the charges. If you ask for a trial, the officer will testify and then you will tell your side. The judge’s first decision will then be whether or not you are guilty of the violation charged. Your age will have nothing to do with this part of the proceeding.

If the judge finds that you committed the violation or you enter a plea to the violation, the next phase would be imposing an appropriate sentence. Based on the seriousness of the violation, the sentence could range from supervision and a fine, to a conviction and a fine, to a period of incarceration. Again, it is unlikely that you would be self-represented if the possibility of a jail sentence existed. At this point, the judge will begin to review your driving background and the facts and circumstances that might have contributed to the present incident.

Age alone will not be the determinative factor; however, it is important because the judge knows there are physical effects of aging that might impact a person’s ability to safely drive. With the fastest growing demographic in society being the baby boomers, a lot more older citizens are visiting traffic courts. Judges recognize, however, that the vast majority of senior citizens remain healthy enough to drive. For the purposes of the Older Americans Act of 1965, anyone who is sixty years of age or older is considered a senior. Studies show that there is little evidence that drivers age sixty to seventy pose any increased risk to the public. In fact, data shows that they are less likely to be at fault in accidents. The risk of being at fault substantially increases for drivers age seventy to eighty, and drivers age eighty and older are found to be most often at fault. Judges realize that a medically impaired driver is a far greater risk than the healthy seventy-year-old driver.

Age alone is not a predictor of driving ability. The American Medical Association (AMA) has identified the three key functions necessary for safe driving as vision, cognition, and motor function. In the short time that most drivers appear before a judge, only a cursory examination of those functions is possible. Understanding only that as people age, physical, mental, and cognitive capacities begin to change, a judge would need an expert opinion as to whether there exists any change in those functions such that driving should be modified or ceased. For most types of tickets, an expert will not be there. However, during that short appearance before the judge, he or she might ask you some questions about your driving habits, including:

  • How is your health?
  • Have there been any changes in your medications?
  • Do you have difficulty seeing other cars before the drivers honk?
  • Have you talked to your doctor about driving issues?
  • Are there times of the day or evening that are harder for you to drive safely?
  • Do other drivers honk at you for reasons you don’t understand?
  • Has a family member ever suggested that you stop driving?

Judges recognize that age-related diseases affect driving capacity, such as poor night vision, decreased strength and flexibility, arthritis, stroke etc. They may seek to understand if any of those issues caused this ticket. According to the Physician’s Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers (Physician’s Guide), the most common reasons an elder driver appears in court as a defendant includes:

  • Seizures/Epilepsy
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Stroke
  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Paralysis/Spinal cord injury
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Other neurological conditions
  • Cardiovascular disorders (ventricular tachycardia, sinus bradycardia, hypertension, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease)
  • Metabolic disorder (generally diabetes)
  • Musculoskeletal issues (osteoporosis, scoliosis, cerebral palsy)
  • Psychiatric issues (bipolar, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • Pulmonary issues (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema)
  • Substance abuse
  • Vision issues (cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, constricted visual fields)

The court’s concern is your safety and the safety of the public. During the conversation, a judge may also look for any outward manifestations of illness. Examples include hyperventilation, fatigue, and difficulty with speaking, seeing, walking, or understanding.

Judges understand that even more challenging than physical impairments, a driver’s cognitive impairments are almost impossible for a judge to discern. Dementia, for example, is one of the most serious cognitive disorders affecting elders. It is a progressive condition that will ultimately require cessation of driving privileges, but may go unrecognized for years. Additionally, judges know that older drivers taking more than two prescription drugs at once are also at a higher risk of being involved in a motor vehicle accident. The point is a judge will understand that there is a never ending list of things that could have caused the ticket, ranging from inattentiveness to over medication. Age is only one of those considerations.

In most instances, the judge will then proceed to sentencing. Sentencing can be a period of supervision with or without a fine, and a conviction with or without a fine for the less serious infractions. Understanding that driving privileges are important for a senior’s independence and have a positive impact on that person’s quality of life, a judge is not reflexively going to revoke your driver’s license because you have reached a particular age. Judges do not license drivers and each state has its own requirements for licensure and retesting. If a judge feels that based on your driving record retesting is required, a report to the DMV will be made and the driver will be contacted at a later date.

“To be honest, I don’t know if I should continue to drive?” The fact that you have doubts is a clue that it’s time for some outside intervention. This intervention can take the shape of getting a physical and/or vision test performed. Additionally, the AMA has provided guidance to its members in the form of a checklist located in the Physician’s Guide entitled “Am I a Safe Driver?” This checklist lays out a series of statements that a patient may answer in order to self-assess their capacity to drive safely. Applicable statements to check off include:

  • I get lost while driving.
  • My friends and family members say they are worried about my driving.
  • Other cars seem to appear out of nowhere.
  • I have trouble seeing signs in time to respond to them.
  • Other drivers drive too fast.
  • Other drivers often honk at me.
  • Driving stresses me out.
  • After driving, I feel tired.
  • I have had more “near misses” lately.
  • Busy intersections bother me.
  • Left-hand turns make me nervous.
  • The glare from oncoming headlights bothers me.
  • My medication makes me dizzy or drowsy.
  • I have trouble turning the steering wheel.
  • I have trouble pushing down on the gas pedal or brakes.
  • I have trouble looking over my should when I back up.
  • I have been stopped by the police for my driving recently.
  • People will no longer accept rides from me.
  • I don’t like to drive at night.
  • I have more trouble parking lately.

If any of these statements apply to your driving habits, the Physician’s Guide believes that you may be an at-risk driver.

Alternatively you might explore a driver refresher course. The American Association of Retired Persons’ (AARP), the American Automobile Association (AAA), local community organizations, and others provide classroom and/or road courses. Finally, if in doubt, start limiting your driving. If nighttime driving is a problem, don’t drive at night. If you get flustered with cars zooming around you on the expressway, take side streets. Carpool with neighbors for those grocery trips. Look into whether there are discount programs available to seniors on public transportation. In some communities where public transport is sparse, many older citizens carry on their daily affairs in golf carts. As the population of older Americans increases, the alternative transportation options for mature adults expand.

In conclusion, know that there’s nothing to fear from the court process when the blut and red lights start flashing in your rear view mirror. The judge who hears your case wants the same thing you do—the independence provided by driving a vehicle, as long as it is safe for you to do so.

Hon. Freddrenna M. Lyle

Hon. Freddrenna M. Lyle is jointly assigned to the Elder Law and Miscellaneous Remedies Division and the First Municipal District, which includes Traffic Court, of the Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago. Before joining the bench, Judge Lyle was in private practice. She has also served in numerous civic and public service capacities, including that of alderman of the 6th Ward of the City of Chicago.