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Aging exacts cruel toll on drivers in Pinellas

When Almalouise Reitmeyer moved here in 1970, she was 40 and her son was 20. He would quickly get frustrated on Pinellas roads. He would gripe about "all these old, dead people."

"I didn't think anything about it," Mrs. Reitmeyer said recently. "Then the years passed, and I got older. Then it hurt."

Driving hurts your psyche. Especially in north Pinellas County and especially if you are old.

Something about sliding behind the steering wheel makes us shed the diplomacies of a civilized life. Something about choking traffic makes us frustrated and hostile.

Elderly drivers get the ugliest traffic signal of all, a raw metaphor for life: Get out of the way and let the younger generation pass.

Their reactions to this boil up, among other places, in driving classes conducted virtually every weekday in Pinellas by the American Association of Retired Persons. The classes take eight hours and entitle drivers to discounted car insurance.

They quickly liven up when the topic, "My primary frustrations," comes up.

A big No. 1: tailgaters. Two: drivers who squeeze in front of you. Three: People who leave their turn signals on. Finally, a disconcerting sign of the times: young women with sports cars and obscene gestures.

"I can't imagine one of my daughters giving somebody the finger and cutting them off," said Jane Cronyn, 69, of Palm Harbor, who attended an AARP course at Highland Lakes.

On talk radio, Mrs. Reitmeyer recently heard young people deride seniors as "Q-tips."

"They're just absolutely certain they're never going to be Q-tips," she said.

The frustrations gush forth with humor and irreverence. But there is an undercurrent of poignancy, because these folks know their physical skills are gradually going downhill.

Harry Morgan, 81, of Palm Harbor, knows you're supposed to look over your shoulder before changing lanes. But arthritis has made that hard, he said.

Mrs. Cronyn's husband, Joe, got his cataracts repaired but still doesn't trust his judgment after dark. So Jane drives at night.

Reaction times, depth perception, hearing, concentration and confidence all may be declining. Yet the driver on your back bumper has little sympathy.

Mrs. Reitmeyer would tell him: "Remember that that's as fast as that person may be able to go safely."

The problems cause patterns in the accident statistics. Senior citizens, because they don't drive as much, don't account for a big share of accidents. But when they do drive, they and teenagers are the most accident-prone. The average 80-year-old drives worse than the average 20-year-old. And at that point in their lives, the 20-year-old is improving and the 80-year-old is declining.

So the AARP course includes a somber chapter near the end, "Deciding when to stop driving."

Herb Wolfe of Tarpon Springs, who taught a recent course in Oldsmar, said his grandmother was driving at age 103 until he hid her car keys.

Losing the car, especially in America, means losing much freedom. And the oldest drivers know that for them, the loss is irreversible.

Lee Abbey, who taught the Highland Lakes course, generally keeps his class discussions friendly and animated. But they quieten noticeably during this topic, he said.

"Once they give up the keys to the car, boy, they have to depend on other people for everything," Abbey said. "It's the touchiest subject in the subject field."