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Finding the middle road between freedom and safety for older drivers

Max Johnston
Interlochen Public Radio
Ted Beiderwieden, 82, drives his Mercedes-Benz E300 to IPR most weekdays.

There are more than 1.2 million drivers over the age of 65 in Michigan, and statistically they are safe on the road.

But a county in northern Michigan has one of the highest rates of car accidents for senior citizens.

Daily commute

Most weekdays around noon Ted Beiderwieden gets into his Mercedes-Benz E300 for the commute to Interlochen Public Radio.

"A lifelong vehicular dream was to have this kind of a car," Ted says.

Ted is 82 years old, retired three years ago and now volunteers for IPR's classical music station.

Ted's commute takes him along a winding, hilly stretch of road through some woods. Ted's a careful and attentive driver; he always has two hands on the wheel, goes the speed limit - or slightly over it- and keeps his eyes on the road.

"I always remind myself, 'You're retired, you're not in a hurry,'" Ted says. "'So take it easy and enjoy the ride.'"

Ted says he has liked driving his entire life, but he's starting to look at it differently.

Driving to a decision

Ted's vision is getting worse from macular degeneration in his right eye, and his reflexes aren't what they used to be.

Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Ted Beiderwieden pulls in to the parking lot of IPR. He had to get the entire side of his car replaced after an accident last winter.

This past winter while parking his car, Ted slid off the street into a snowbank and hit a tree. So lately he's had some frank conversations with his children.

"They're conscious of the fact that I'm 82 and still mobile on my own," Ted says. "But we have talked about the time approaching when I would have to give it up."

Ted says he's accepted that fact, but it does worry him.

"I would have to totally rely on somebody else to take me to the grocery store, to church. I wouldn't be able to come to Interlochen on my own," Ted says.

More people than ever are holding on to their keys as they get older. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 41 million licensed drivers in the U.S. are 65 or older. That's up from 26 million drivers two decades ago. 

Statistically, older drivers are safe drivers. Crash fatality and accident rates for senior citizens have been declining for years. But in Grand Traverse County, 865 drivers over the age of 65 were involved in car accidents in 2017. Lapeer and Lenawee Counties, which have similar populations, demographics and median ages as Grand Traverse, had 418 and 473 respectively. 

Rocky roads Up North

Steven Gursten, an attorney from Detroit who represents older drivers, says roads in rural communities Up North have unique challenges for senior citizens: like more dirt roads and fewer traffic signals; and visibility is worsened by more trees and fewer street lights.

Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Steven Gursten says roads in northern Michigan present unique challengers for older drivers.

"Driving in Michigan in the summer in a very popular tourist destination is probably adding to the confusion for a lot of these elderly drivers," Gursten says.

He also says driving is an emotional issue for senior citizens, and because Michigan doesn't offer many transportation alternatives, they may hold on to their keys longer than they should.

"For so many people the car isn't just a car, it's their freedom: it represents independence," Gursten says. "To take the keys away is a tremendous, crushing issue for a lot of people."

Refresher Course

Chris Earle, an instructor with AARP, teaches "Smart Driver" courses for senior citizens across northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.  Attendees get a certificate that can get them a discount on car insurance. 

Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Chris Earle leads "Smart Driver" courses across northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

Earle says an important element of the Smart Driver course is encouraging senior citizens to acknoledge when to stop driving rather than being forced to by others.

"Think ahead, don't let life happen to you. You should take action on things before it happens [sic]," Earle says.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.