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Motorcyclist, 100-year-old driver collide

APOLLO BEACH — Howard DeMask headed to the beauty parlor to pick up his wife of 75 years.

At 100, he does the driving.

His family doesn't worry about him navigating the area's familiar roads. His driving record in Florida is spotless. The last time he took a vision test, he passed it on the first try.

He has never had any problems before.

On Tuesday afternoon, that changed.

Turning left onto Flamingo Drive from U.S. 41, DeMask's 2003 Buick Century collided with a motorcycle driven by Timothy Mohammed Soliman, 22, of Apollo Beach, sending Soliman to the hospital in critical condition.

DeMask didn't see him coming.

"It happened so fast," he said. "I looked out on the street and there was a fella laying there. I thought, 'how did this guy get here?' "

Many of the specifics of the case were still unknown Wednesday. No one has been cited or charged. But the case puts the spotlight on a small group of Florida's eldest drivers and raises an important public safety question:

Is there an age when drivers should retire the keys for good?

"There's a certain age when people probably shouldn't be driving anymore," said Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad. "I'll get there, you'll get there, we'll all get there."

Florida has 455 licensed drivers age 100 and older.

Pinellas County leads the Tampa Bay region with 39, followed by Pasco with 22, Hillsborough with 16 and Hernando with four.

The number of licensed drivers between 91 and 100 is much larger: About 65,000.

Stories of dangerous elderly drivers are common; the stereotypes rampant. They drive too slowly. They react late. They mistake the gas pedal for the brakes and slam into buildings.

But drivers 90 years and older actually have the lowest rate of crashes in the state, according to the most recent data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

There are about 79 crashes for every 10,000 licensed drivers, roughly 3.75 times lower than the 15- to 19-year-old demographic, which owns the highest crash rate.

That demographic sees about 364 crashes for every 10,000 licensed drivers.

But seniors fare worse when you consider miles driven. Judged that way, statistics have shown, the rate of crashes jumps markedly after age 80.

• • •

There's no age when drivers are required to put away the keys.

Driving is a personal freedom. It's convenient, fun, a symbol of one's independence.

State officials want to ensure that older drivers "maintain their driving independence as long as they continue to drive safely and confidently," said Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Steve Gaskins.

Elderly drivers have few additional requirements in order to renew a license.

Drivers 80 and older must renew their license every six years instead of eight, and take a vision exam every renewal instead of every other one.

"You're getting your vision tested every six years instead of every 16," said Courtney Heidelberg, a spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, explaining the difference.

For Soliman's family, that's not enough.

"I can't imagine that I would be totally coherent at the age of 100 and have the reaction time to operate a vehicle," said Soliman's mother, Hanna Soliman.

She suggests a road test would be more beneficial in determining who gets to drive.

• • •

DeMask looked around for the other car and was surprised to learn he hit a motorcycle.

"He must have went over my car," he said.

Soliman was taken to Tampa General Hospital. On Wednesday, he was in serious condition. He had two broken arms, a broken knee and broken ankle as well as a minor brain injury, his family said.

DeMask had only minor injuries including a wound on his chest caused by broken glass. His Buick was totaled, he said.

It was unclear how fast Soliman was going at the time of the crash. He was not wearing his helmet.

Soliman has a history of traffic infractions, with four speeding tickets, a ticket for running a stop sign and one for not wearing a seat belt.

A day before the crash, Soliman's license was suspended indefinitely for not going to court-ordered traffic school tied to an August 2011 speeding ticket, FHP Capt. Nancy Rasmussen said.

Craig DeMask, 47, said his grandfather was very upset about the crash.

"It's just sad," he said. "This is going to weigh with him. It will bother him for a long time."

DeMask said his grandfather has never been in a crash as long as he's been alive.

"We didn't want him really driving to Orlando, but driving around there, he was fine," he said.

He said his grandfather was very sharp.

He reads a couple books a week from the library.

His memory is sharp — he remembers selling the newspaper when World War I ended.

"He's amazing."

Howard DeMask and his wife, Louise, have lived in Apollo Beach for 40 years.

He is retired from Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, where he was a maintenance worker.

After the accident, DeMask stayed in his car, dazed.

"I was so surprised I just sat there and picked a few pieces of glass out of my hand," DeMask said.

He said he wasn't sure if he would drive again.

"It depends on how things work out," he said.

From the kitchen, his wife chimed in: "I don't think he'll be allowed to drive again."

Times staff writer Marissa Lang and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

By the numbers

455 licensed Florida drivers age 100 and older.

Here's a breakdown of centenarian drivers in bay area counties:

39 Pinellas22 Pasco
16 Hillsborough4 Hernando

Source: Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles

Motorcyclist, 100-year-old driver collide 04/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 11:16pm]
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