An 88-year-old man drives the wrong way on Interstate 295 for two miles.

An 83-year-old man makes a U-turn that leads to a fatal motorcycle crash.

A Biddeford man, 77, crashes his car into the entry doors of a supermarket.

A 77-year-old man with a medical condition leads police on a slow-speed chase through Falmouth before he stops and backs into a cruiser.

That series of dangerous traffic mishaps occurred within a week in southern Maine, drawing attention to the challenges that drivers face as their health and abilities diminish with age.

About 20 percent of Maine drivers are older than 65, and they are involved in roughly 20 percent of the state’s fatal crashes, according to an analysis by the Maine Sunday Telegram.

About 12 percent of the state’s licensed drivers are older than 70, and this group was involved in just 6.5 percent of all crashes reported by police from 2006 to 2010, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.

But these statistics don’t tell the whole story.

National statistics have shown that drivers in their 70s and older are involved in more fatal crashes per miles driven than almost any other age group, rivaled only by teenage drivers.

Older drivers also are more likely to die or be seriously injured in a crash than drivers in other age groups.

Maine’s population is the oldest in the country, with a median age of 42.

Fifteen percent of its residents are older than 65, according to census data provided by the Maine Secretary of State’s Office. That percentage is expected to grow as baby boomers age, reaching 26.3 percent of the population by 2030, a number to be surpassed only by Florida, according to state projections.

Dr. Dan Onion, a gerontologist who serves on the Maine Senior Driver Coalition and the medical advisory board for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, is aware of the data.

“We’ve been trying to find ways to help keep people driving as long as they can and to know when it’s a good idea to stop,” said Onion, who serves on the medical advisory board with a neurologist, a cardiologist, an opthalmologist and a psychiatrist. “Just about everybody has to retire from driving sometime.”

The Maine Senior Driver Coalition, formed in 2009 to address the issue, includes advocates for the elderly such as Area Agencies on Aging and AARP, as well as AAA and state agency representatives.

SOME CHECKS IN PLACE

Recognizing the risks of continuing to drive when vision, cognitive reasoning or reaction time has declined, many drivers give up their licenses or scale back their driving to daytime hours and/or familiar roads.

The Bureau of Motor Vehicles also increases its scrutiny of drivers after age 65, requiring license renewal every four years instead of six. Vision tests are required for every renewal after a person turns 62, said Patty Morneau, head of the bureau’s licensing division.

Another check on deteriorating driving skills is called adverse driving reports — police submit them to the bureau when they encounter a driver whose driving abilities appear questionable because of a crash or violation.

Adverse driving reports often require a driver’s physician to complete a Functional Ability Profile, listing the physical, mental or emotional conditions that may affect the person’s ability to drive.

Ultimately, the licensing division’s medical advisory board determines what restrictions should be imposed on a driver’s license, ranging from requiring additional testing to restricting when a person can drive to revoking driving privileges.

The bureau is studying revisions to its Functional Ability Profile, which defines levels of illness and impairment, but it hasn’t finished its analysis, according to Secretary of State Charlie Summers.

“We’re trying to address this as quickly as we can and we hope to have recommendations for the next Legislature,” said Summers. “Driving obviously offers tremendous independence, and people, as they age, are very worried about losing that independence.”

Summers said he is working with auto dealerships to have them host seminars on how to be a safer senior driver.

“A lot of it is educational, knowing as they get in the car, because they’re getting a little older, to allow themselves greater distance between vehicles, make sure they get their vision tested” and limit night driving, if that’s a problem, he said.

The 2011 update of Maine’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan proposes encouraging older drivers and their families to do self-screening, using tests available through AAA’s Roadwise Review. The plan also calls for developing transit options that meet the needs of people transitioning to life without driving.

The motorist advocacy group AAA offers monthly classes for older drivers to help keep their skills sharp, said Pat Moody, spokesman for AAA Northern New England.

“We’re doing driver assessments as well,” he said. “If someone wants to have loved ones or themselves go out on a private lesson or assessment, we take them out and give them an idea of where they would stack up on the road test.”

REQUIRED ROAD TESTS RESISTED

Maine’s requirements for more frequent license renewals and vision tests are not uncommon.

In most states, drivers must renew their licenses more frequently after they reach a certain age — sometimes as early as 65, sometimes as late as 80. In many states, a physician or public safety official can require older drivers to take a written or road test. Many states prohibit older drivers from renewing their licenses online, requiring instead that they do so in person.

Only Illinois requires a road test for all older drivers. New Hampshire had a similar law until last year, when the Legislature repealed it. Massachusetts considered a similar law but it was met with fierce resistance.

AARP opposes routinely testing elderly drivers, arguing that statistics show that no tests can predict who is likely to get into a crash.

“When there are automobile crashes, they are always regrettable and everyone wants to find a solution,” said Nancy Thompson, a national spokeswoman for AARP, which advocates for retirees. “There’s just no evidence that road testing can identify who is going to have a crash or not.”

She said AARP does support requiring license renewals to be made in person — regardless of age.

Jane Margersson, the Maine AARP spokesman, said many state residents must drive if they want to be part of their community. Traffic engineers can help by ensuring that signs are clearly visible and traffic directions are easily understood, she said.

State Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, a member of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said she doesn’t believe any measures to tighten requirements for older drivers have come up during her time in the Legislature, which began in 1988.

If policy changes are proposed, she would want to see good data to support them. “We can’t make decisions based on a few anecdotes,” she said.

The issue stirs passions because driving represents independence, especially in a rural state like Maine that has few public transportation options outside the largest cities.

And most elderly drivers drive safely.

In fact, the elderly are less likely to crash than other age groups.

“Teenagers are 10 times as high,” said Onion. “With the elderly, there’s a very small bump in the age-vs.-crash rates beyond age 75, but it’s nothing like the 16-year-olds.”

The definition of an “elderly driver” varies — in some cases over age 65, in others over age 70.

Older drivers are also less likely to be involved in certain types of accidents. They are, for example, the least likely age group to be involved in fatal drunken-driving crashes and speed-related fatal crashes, according to 2010 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

From 2003 to 2011 in Maine, there were 1,419 fatal crashes. In 283 of those crashes — about 20 percent — at least one driver was older than 65, according to the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety. That’s roughly the elderly’s proportion of the driving population.

Drivers 16 to 24 make up less than 12 percent of licensed drivers but were involved in 31 percent of the fatal crashes during that period, and were found to be the cause of 33 percent of the deaths from fatal crashes.

But those most likely to be killed in a fatal crash involving older drivers are the drivers themselves.

In 222 of the 283 fatal crashes in which an elderly person was driving from 2003 to 2011, the elderly driver was the person killed. Eighty passengers killed in these crashes were over 65.

In three-quarters of fatal crashes nationally in 2009 and 2010 involving an elderly driver, the person killed was that driver or an elderly passenger.

Older drivers’ higher fatality and injury rates are due in part to “gradually diminishing physical, sensory and cognitive capabilities, often exacerbated by medications,” according to Maine’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan. Elderly drivers, and often their passengers, are also more frail than younger people.

The state’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan cites national and Maine studies that say drivers older than 65 have more crashes per miles driven than any age group except 16-year-olds, and those crashes are 1.7 times as likely to cause serious injury or death than for drivers aged 25 to 65.

TREND, OR COINCIDENCE?

It’s impossible to tell whether the recent incidents involving elderly drivers reflect a trend, or simply coincidence.

On June 27, an 83-year-old man tried to make a U-turn on Johnson Road in Portland after pulling out of City Line Drive. U-turns there, while illegal, are common as drivers seek to head south on the four-lane road.

This time, as the man pulled into the passing lane and prepared to reverse direction, a motorcyclist collided with his car. The rider was not wearing a helmet and died two days later. The car’s driver was not charged at the scene but the case will be presented to prosecutors next week.

On June 29, an 88-year-old man was driving north in the southbound lanes of I-295. The case made headlines because a state trooper managed to speed ahead of the man and put his cruiser in the path of the car before it collided with any southbound motorists. Nobody was injured.

In January, a similar situation unfolded as a 77-year-old Gorham man was driving north in the southbound lanes of I-295 after sunset in Freeport. He crashed head-on into another car and was killed. The other driver was hospitalized but survived. The 77-year-old had told family members that he didn’t like to drive at night.

On Monday, a 77-year-old Biddeford man had just finished grocery shopping and started to pull out of his handicapped-parking space when he suddenly accelerated into a parked car, veered across the lot and drove through the entry doors of the Shaw’s supermarket in Saco. Nobody was hurt.

On Thursday, a Falmouth police officer tried to pull over a Dodge Dakota. The 77-year-old driver slowed frequently but was weaving and refused to stop. When he did finally pull over, he put the truck in reverse and bumped into the cruiser, though he did no damage.

The man was disoriented and suffering from a medical condition, police said.

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com