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Driver, 79, singled out for retest because she uses walker

LARGO — Marjorie Buda pulled her Chrysler Concorde up to the driver's license office. A layer of sweat had accumulated on her upper lip.

"I'm a wreck," she said Friday. "I got a bad feeling about this. They're looking for anything to take older drivers' licenses away from them."

As she spoke, a man with a clipboard exited the office and headed toward her.

Buda, 79, tried to do her yoga breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. She tried to take herself to a happy place, the apple orchard up in Massachusetts where she'd taken her kids.

If he failed her, she'd lose her ability to drive and, ultimately, the life she'd carved out for herself. She lived alone in a low-income apartment in Pinellas Park and relied on her car to shop, visit the library, go to Weight Watchers.

It had all started when she'd gone to the driver's license office three weeks before to change her address. The clerk had spotted Buda's walker and asked her to take a driving test. She'd failed that first test. Now she was back to fight for her license.

"Ready?" asked the driver examiner.

She nodded, trying to remain calm.

Buda put the gear shift into drive. She gripped the steering wheel tightly and pulled tentatively into the parking lot.

The state's driver's license operating manual gives the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles the authority to compel a driving test if someone comes in with an apparent medical condition, such as "paralysis," "severe arthritis," "an amputation," "general weakness, stiffness or shakiness," or "problems with gait or balance."

Also on the list: "assistive devices," such as walkers and canes.

"It's not really age-related," said Courtney Heidelberg, a spokesperson for the DMV. "There are scenarios where there may be concerns about someone's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle that could require retesting."

"Assistive devices" appear to have been on the list of conditions since at least 2003. What has changed is that in June, the DMV closed its Pinellas Park office and transferred all driver medical examinations to the Pinellas County Tax Collector's Office, where Buda went to update her address.

Buda knew that more and more states are taking a look at how they monitor senior drivers. Florida seniors 80 or older must renew their licenses and take an eye exam every six years, instead of eight for other drivers.

She'd read stories about seniors hitting the gas instead of the brakes and plowing into stores. Just last month, a 100-year-old man backed his Cadillac into a group of schoolchildren on a sidewalk in Los Angeles.

But her license wasn't up for renewal when she visited the Largo office Sept. 12. She couldn't find a parking spot — even the handicapped spots were full — and ended up way in the back of the lot. She normally used a cane but worried about the long walk and standing in line. She'd had a hip and knee replacement several years ago. Her other knee is scheduled to be replaced in February.

At Station 19, the official asked to see her driver's license. Then she spotted Buda's walker.

"Why do you have that?" Buda said she asked.

Buda said she explained about her surgeries and the walk from her car.

The examiner conferred with a supervisor and then ordered Buda to take a driving test within five days.

It didn't matter that she'd never had a ticket or an accident during 28 years of driving in Florida. Or that she took the AARP safe-driver course every three years. Or that her license wasn't up for renewal until 2017.

During the 10-minute test Buda stopped at stop signs, negotiated a three-point turn, pulled into a parking spot. But at the end, the examiner told her she failed to pull to a complete stop at one of the stop signs. She was given a temporary permit for 30 days, after which, she said, she would have lost her license.

"I dispute that," Marjorie said she told him. "I want another test as soon as possible."

Buda struggled to imagine her life without a car. She was divorced and lived alone. Her three grown children lived in or near her hometown of Worcester, Mass.

While awaiting the retest, she hadn't been able to drive without a licensed chaperone accompanying her. She'd missed a doctor's appointment.

"You have a lot at stake," her friend Nick Jordan told her.

The second test was twice as long as the first. This time, senior tax specialist Osvaldo Arvelo had her back up about 50 yards, come to a complete stop going 20 mph, answer a question about which way to turn her wheels when she parked her car on an incline.

When she finally pulled to a stop back in front of the office, Osvaldo turned to her.

"You passed," he said.

"Hallelujah," she responded.

Later, Buda and Jordan stopped for breakfast.

"He told me I was a safe driver," she told him proudly.

"I'm glad you stayed with it and didn't throw your hands up," Jordan said.

"I learned a valuable lesson today," she said. "Don't ever go up there with a cane or a walker."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640 or lapeter@tampabay.com.

Driver, 79, singled out for retest because she uses walker 10/02/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 10:13am]
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