It was the ultimate role reversal.

There I sat on the phone one afternoon a few years ago, listening to my father, who was near tears, pleading for me and my sister to give him back his car keys.

He was in the final months of terminal cancer and, because of a recent fall, had a broken shoulder to boot. My mother, hovering by the phone, was on a steep decline into Alzheimer’s disease, had already “lost” her car in a parking lot a few times and, much worse, had come perilously close to a collision a day or two before.

Their proposal?

“Mom can still operate the car,” Dad insisted, “and I’ll be sitting right there telling her what to do.”

Right. Unable to drive safely on their own, yet desperate to maintain their mobility, my dear, always-there-for-each-other parents wanted to job share.

“It’s called co-piloting,” said Deputy Secretary of State Catherine Curtis, head of Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles, in an interview Tuesday. “We’re familiar with that process.”

That heartbreaking conversation – my sister and I reluctantly told Dad and Mom that their driving days were over – came back this week with two almost-identical stories out of central Maine:

A week ago today, a 91-year-old man drove his Buick Century out onto Interstate 95 in Orono and headed seven miles north — in the southbound lanes.

Then, on Saturday, an 87-year-old woman entered I-95 in Etna and drove north for seven miles – in the southbound lanes.

The good news is that no one got hurt. According to Maine State Police, the poor old man drove into a snowbank once he realized that traffic was coming at him. The woman, who thought she was on a two-way road, sent two oncoming drivers off the road before pulling over to clear her windshield.

Still, for anyone who has dealt with the anguish, anxiety and outright anger that often comes with telling a loved one it’s time to hand over the keys, the two near misses serve as a sobering reminder of what can happen when the desire to hit the open road exceeds the ability to navigate it safely.

“Oh yes, I read (the back-to-back, wrong-way-driver stories) too,” said Curtis. “Every one of them catches my eye.”

In addition to overseeing all things motor-vehicle in Maine, Curtis serves as co-chair of the Maine Senior Driver Safety Coalition. For the past two years, the network of state agencies, private businesses and organizations and members of the medical community have been grappling with ways to confront a painful reality for the 175,000 (and counting) licensed drivers in Maine who are 65 or older.

“Many of our parents are at that age where we start to worry about them (driving),” said Curtis, a self-described baby boomer. “But I’m also watching statistics and I’m also watching the Maine population age.”

Meaning with each passing year, more and more elderly drivers will be out on Maine’s roads — over the past decade alone, the number of “mature drivers” statewide has jumped by 24 percent.

And while the vast majority of those folks are perfectly capable of getting there from here safely, thank you very much, Curtis is far from alone in worrying about what safeguards exist to head off those who are careening toward a tragedy.

Maine law now requires drivers older than 62 to renew their licenses after four years (younger motorists must renew every six years) and take a vision test with each renewal.

Beyond that, the state takes a second look (ranging from written and/or road tests to immediate revocation) only if an “adverse report” is received by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles from a law enforcement agency, a physician or a family member who has reason to believe a person’s skills behind the wheel have slipped into what is clearly a danger zone.

The numbers, compiled annually by the Maine Department of Transportation, tell the story: While Maine’s 16- to 24-year-old drivers averaged 11,717 crashes involving 55.6 fatalities each year from 2005 to 2009, drivers over 65 averaged 4,695 crashes with 41.4 deaths. Hence, while the kids get in more accidents, the rate of fatalities per 1,000 crashes involving the older folks (8.8) is almost double that for the teenagers and young adults (4.7).

Put more simply, when accidents involving elderly drivers do happen, they tend to be deadlier.

The goals of the senior driver coalition, Curtis said, are threefold: Educate the public on how aging affects driving; develop more resources, such as the free online tool offered by AAA Northern New England for gauging an older driver’s capabilities; and devise better transportation alternatives for people who, without the keys, see their whole lives shift into park.

Some of the coalition’s more lofty goals will cost money, which, as Curtis knows, is hard to come by these days.

But having that conversation? That can happen any time.

“A lot of people will self-regulate –they’ll stop driving during bad weather, stop driving during non-daylight hours, they’ll only drive on familiar roads. Many people willingly give up driving altogether,” Curtis said. “But others just don’t recognize when their ability has dropped.”

For the latter, and their worried families, Curtis suggests a simple question often posed by Dr. Daniel Onion of Augusta, who co-chairs the coalition: With the elderly driver behind the wheel, will you let the grandchildren get in the car?

“If the answer is no, that usually means the family is concerned,” Curtis said.

Motorists up around Etna and Orono can only hope that after last week’s near misses, two families in Maine sat up, took notice and, above all, grabbed the keys.

(Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland said Tuesday that while he didn’t have the details of what happened after state police headed off those two disasters, it’s a safe bet the troopers’ reports are on the fast track to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.)

Curtis, meanwhile, is asking herself the same question that arises whenever one of these stories crosses her desk: “What can I do in my job to minimize this?”

“We have to be thinking about it now,” she said. “We have to stay ahead of that curve.”

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: bnemitz@mainetoday.com