When it was time to go to the grocery store, Elizabeth Garrett needed 35 minutes just to get from the kitchen to her car. Here's what she did to get herself behind the wheel: Used all the strength in both arms to raise herself out of kitchen chair. Walked haltingly behind aluminum walker to scooter. Steered scooter outside and onto ramp on back of car. Inched around to driver's door, holding on to car roof for balance. Lowered herself slowly into driver's seat like child entering very hot bath. Used arms to lift legs into car. Lost keys. Looked for keys for 10 minutes. Found keys beneath driver's seat. Garrett moved a lot faster once she got the car going. On her way to Winn-Dixie, she blew through a school zone at 40 mph. She didn't notice the cones, the blinking light, the other cars creeping slowly along. Garrett is 93 years old. She has fallen several times and her medications make her dizzy. She has no family or close friends nearby, no one to drive her to the doctor or the store. But she has a valid driver's license and a 1991
Honda Civic with a stuffed Garfield cat suction-cupped to the window. And so off she goes.
In early August, she received a letter from the state. Someone — she didn't know who — had questioned her driving ability. Now the former world traveler would have to submit to a rigorous evaluation, including a driving test, to prove she could safely drive down the street.
"You see, I drive capable," she said, steering up 49th Street N. "If I don't feel I should be driving, I stay home. I don't want to lose my license. It would be a terrible hardship. I have no one."
A few blocks later, she blew through another school zone, undeterred by the cones in the road.
"They're green," she observed. "They don't stand out."
But she didn't slow down.
• • •
To be fair, very old people are not the only dangerous drivers out there.
Teenagers are notoriously bad; they get in more crashes per mile traveled than any other age group.
The difference is that young people generally become better drivers as they age. Old people don't. Their reflexes slow, their hearing and eyesight deteriorate, their concentration falters.
There is encouraging data showing that older drivers have gotten into fewer fatal crashes in recent years, likely because of safer cars, better fitness and improved emergency medical treatment.
But the fact remains that the older they get, the worse they get. The number of crashes seniors get into per mile driven spikes dramatically after age 80.
Most of their mistakes are minor — the surprise lane change, the parking lot thump. But some are disastrous and seem directly connected to their age. Seniors ramble into ditches, off bridges, through storefronts.
Several years ago, a 93-year-old man struck a pedestrian in St. Petersburg and kept driving for miles with the man's body lodged in his windshield.
Florida has 732,293 licensed drivers over 80, says the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The question is how many should really be out there. Some states have begun pilot programs to regularly test the reflexes and cognitive abilities of older drivers. But Florida is not among them. It requires only that people over 80 renew their licenses every six years instead of every eight, like everyone else. In addition, those 80 and over must pass a vision test to keep driving. A 2005 study showed that only 7 percent of them did not pass it.
The state may also order a driving test for someone who has caused a wreck or generated a complaint. And some seniors have their keys taken away by a concerned family member.
But for most, the decision to give up driving is a personal one. It is also a profoundly difficult one because of the loss of mobility and independence that comes with it.
In August, the St. Petersburg Times published notices asking to interview older people in the Tampa Bay area who were considering giving up driving. Most who responded were from the largest subset of older drivers — white women, many of them living alone.
People, like Elizabeth Garrett, who have been driving for 60 or 70 years and are reluctant to park the car now.
• • •
Garrett got the letter from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in early August. It said she must see her doctor and get his opinion on whether she should be driving.
Her doctor referred her to a program at Bayfront Medical Center that performs driver evaluations. An occupational therapist would test her eye-hand-foot coordination, reaction time, visual scanning ability, and so on. If she got through all that, she would take a road test.
The process would take three hours and cost $321. Garrett made an appointment for mid-September, two weeks away.
Not long after she set the appointment, she stopped outside her condo to talk with a neighbor, a woman whose name she did not know.
"Someone reported me, that I'm too old to drive," Garrett said. Privately, she wondered who had made the call about her. She lives in a 10-story high-rise on Boca Ciega Bay, and dozens of people could see her every time she rode her scooter to the parking lot.
"I'm sure it has nothing to do with age because we have people in this building who are 97 and they're still driving," the woman replied, shifting her shopping bags.
"I have to take a test," Garrett said.
"You do that," the woman replied, heading for the elevator. "You get your license back."
Garrett knew her driving wasn't perfect. In the past five years, she has had three accidents. Nobody has been seriously hurt, but the police have cited her for speeding, failure to yield, careless driving, improper backing and failure to obey a traffic control sign.
But she didn't see herself as incompetent. Garrett was a successful real estate broker in Canada before she divorced and moved to Florida in 1972. (Her two children live in Canada.) Her condo is covered with souvenirs from her trips all over the world — plates from Greece and Singapore, wall hangings from Thailand and China, decorative eggs from Russia and Japan.
She had seen the world and now she couldn't drive a car? It was unimaginable. How would she pick up her prescriptions, get money out of the bank, buy groceries and get them home? Moving wasn't an option because she has a reverse mortgage on her condo that provides income she needs.
There was no question about it. She had to drive.
"Yeah, I'm still driving," she recalled telling a lady at the German American Society one Saturday night. "There's nothing wrong with my brain and there's nothing wrong with my feet. I'm still driving."
• • •
One day in early September, Garrett set out to do some errands. The bank, Walgreens, the hearing aid store and Winn-Dixie.
She had fallen in her bedroom recently and was still sore, so getting in and out of the car was a bigger ordeal than usual. Her bruised legs moved stiffly, as if she were on stilts.
When she pulled into the parking lot of the hearing aid store, the scooter platform scraped the pavement loudly, as it did every time she navigated a bump. She parked beneath a large oak tree and made her way across the hot blacktop. Her flowing muumuu, decorated with red and purple flowers, whipped in the breeze.
When she finally got inside, she stood for a moment, panting. She turned to a receptionist and told her that the $3,000 hearing aid that she had bought a few months before no longer worked. Soon she was escorted to an exam room, where she spoke to a woman in a lab coat.
"When watching TV last night, a movie, I couldn't understand what they were saying," she told the lab coat lady. "All I heard was noise. So they're no better than the other ones I've got."
"Well that's no good," the woman responded.
Garrett removed the hearing aids and the woman inspected them.
"These are not the right ones," she told Garrett. "These are your old hearing aids."
Garrett looked confused. Then she remembered that during the movie she had put in her old hearing aids to test them against the new ones.
She had forgotten to remove them.
This lapse didn't faze her. She thanked the woman and headed back to the car.
• • •
A week before she was scheduled to have her driving evaluation, Garrett sat on the edge of her twin bed, pulling on her support stockings and worrying.
She was afraid she wouldn't pass the tests at Bayfront. She thought about the recent fall, the struggle to get in and out of the car, the mighty effort she expended just going about her day.
She had been asking herself, should I pay the $321 for the test only to fail it? But then she would think about how much she would hate to lose her independence.
She paused on the bed, and tears sprouted from the corners of her foggy hazel eyes.
"I'm not a religious person, but I ask the spirit every night to guide me," she said. "Maybe I needed that fall to realize how frail I am."
• • •
After she finished dressing, she embarked on another series of errands.
Driving along 49th Street N, Garrett entered another school zone. She slowed to 15 mph and pointed to the green cones.
"I realize that's why everyone is going slow," she said. "It must be for the kids coming out of school."
She stopped at a light. She chatted about something she had read in the newspaper, then turned the conversation back to driving, remarking that teenagers get into more accidents than anyone else.
As she talked, the light turned green. But she didn't notice. She kept talking.
One second. Two seconds. Three. Four. Five. Six seconds. Cars streamed by.
Finally, she realized and punched her foot on the gas pedal. The car surged forward and she veered to the right, coming within inches of a public bus. The bus driver honked his horn. Garrett didn't react.
Then she crossed into the other lane, coming close to a white Lexus. She didn't notice that either. She continued driving, both hands gripping her zebra-print steering wheel cover.
• • •
Her driving evaluation was scheduled for a Monday. On the Friday before, Elizabeth called Bayfront and said she wouldn't be there. The woman on the phone told her she would have to stop driving immediately.
It was over.
For Garrett, there had been no eureka moment. She had made the decision gradually, and by the time she made the phone call she was resigned to it.
The next Monday, the day she would have been at Bayfront, she was approaching the condo elevator with her walker when a man on a scooter rounded the corner.
"I'm giving up my car," Garrett told the neighbor, Anthony Racioppo, 87.
"I should be selling my car too," Racioppo said, looking at the ground.
"Do you lose your balance sometimes?" she asked. "That's my problem. I lose my balance."
"I just get tired," he said. "I have to lay down ... you never know when you're going to go."
"Yes," Garrett responded, "but there's always someone worse off than you."
• • •
That same day, a woman named Zelma Howard got into the driver's seat of the 1991 Honda with Garfield stuck to the window. Garrett eased into the passenger seat and they headed toward St. Petersburg. Howard works for Griswold Special Care, the company Garrett had hired for $15 an hour to help her sort out life without a car.
Their destination: a Dodge dealership on U.S. 19 that had agreed to pay $1,200 for the Honda.
Garrett sat in the passenger seat, trying to make the best of it.
"I'm thinking to myself that I have to pretend I'm a millionaire and I have a chauffeur," she said.
Garrett had called around trying to arrange the rides she would need. She found a senior transport company that ended up costing about $18 for a two-hour trip to the grocery store. She reasoned the rides would cost her about as much as she had been spending on car insurance and maintenance.
"Two years ago, if I lost my license, I would have fought like hell," she said. "There comes a time for everything."
At the dealership, there was an exchange of money and documents. Garrett couldn't find her title. Then she couldn't find her driver's license. The salesman tried to point out one document in her purse but she slapped his hand. He laughed.
When the deal was done and she had her money, she climbed into a shuttle van for the ride back home.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.