Driving While Old

updated 09/25/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/2006 01:00AM

Mark Miller was buying flowers at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market when he saw it barreling toward him. "It looked like a tornado coming up the street," says Miller, 42. "Everything was flying up in the air like special effects in a movie." Miller tried to get out of the way but couldn't: When it hit him, it fractured both his legs and broke 12 teeth. Still, he was lucky—the runaway car that plowed into a crowd of shoppers that awful day in 2003 killed 10 people. "You can say you're sorry after something like this, but 10 people died," says Miller, a film director who spent more than a month in a wheelchair. "How can any one person be that kind of sorry?"

This week the driver of that 1992 Buick LeSabre, George Russell Weller, 90, is set to stand trial on 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter. A churchgoing grandfather with a good driving record, Weller pled not guilty, claiming he mistook the gas pedal for the brake. Still, the devastation he caused draws focus to a growing problem: dangerous elderly drivers. Accident rates in the U.S. among drivers 65 and older are higher than for any group other than teens; from 1990 to 1997 the number of deaths involving elderly drivers shot up 14 percent. With seniors the nation's fastest growing demographic, the question of whether, and under what circumstances, a drivers' license should be taken away will only get more urgent. "Up to a third of all seniors have cognition impairment, ranging from mild to dementia," says Dr. Barbara Freund, director of the driving research program at the Eastern Virginia Medical School. "A lot of them don't even realize they have those problems."

Even so, only two states require road tests for seniors 75 and older; in California, the state will only rescind a license after a diagnosis of dementia. "This is a public safety issue that has to be addressed," says Massachusetts State Senator Brian A. Joyce, who sponsored legislation requiring drivers 85 and older to take a vision and driving test every five years. "This is not anti-senior, it's pro-senior, and it's plain common sense."

At the same time Joyce is trying to persuade his own father to give up driving, something more and more families are doing. Chris Putnam, 60, noticed his mother's Honda Accord had some dings she couldn't account for, a sign that an elderly driver's judgment or reflexes might be impaired (see box). Putnam, a surgeon, and his siblings talked to her about giving up her license; she was shocked but, two years ago, agreed to stop driving. "I didn't like it," says Marilou, 86, who depends on rides from friends and relatives to get around in Peoria, Ill. "But I realized if they felt so strongly about this, it must be important. But I do miss driving."

Up until the crash, Russ Weller was considered a safe driver. A retired food salesman who has been married to Harriet, his college sweetheart, since 1939—they have a daughter, two grandchildren and three great-grandkids—Weller is described as loving and caring by those who know him in Santa Monica, where he lives. "He is a model on how to grow old and live a full life," says his friend Marilyn Hulquist. "He is such a good man."

At about 2 p.m. on July 16, 2003, Weller inexplicably steered his LaSabre onto a closed-off street, smashed past a plastic sawhorse barricade and barreled through the open-air market at around 60 mph. "I saw him coming," says Ilona Lettrich, 61, a former hair salon owner. "I could see people being run over, their mouths open as they went down under his car." In seconds the carnage was complete—eight dead, more than 60 injured (two people died later). Some of the survivors and relatives of victims have filed civil suits against Weller.

In his criminal trial he could face anything from probation to 18 years in prison if found guilty on all counts. Since the accident, Weller—who has cancer and probably won't attend the trial—has stopped driving. "He doesn't go out anymore," says Hulquist. "It's like his life ended too." Yet many of his victims are less angry at him than at the holes in the legal system that allowed him to keep driving. "Every moment of every day I'm in pain," says Lettrich, who, because of a crushed right hand, can no longer cut hair and lost her salon. "But I've never really blamed Mr. Weller. I would just be happy if nobody ever has to go through this again."

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