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Jurassic Driving in Florida

What my automobile accidents have in common: the elderly.

(Click for AUDIO VERSION)

Over the years I have been involved with three automobile accidents. Fortunately, none were my fault but I was still a victim nevertheless. When I was 19 years old and living in Cincinnati, I was on my way home on my motorcycle after working all day at a Sohio gas station. As I headed down a thoroughfare at 35 mph, a drunk, who was driving in the opposite direction, turned in front of me and directly into my path. I hit the midsection of his car which catapulted me over the handlebars, over his car, and out into the middle of the street. There are those people who believe their lives flash before their eyes before they die. It's true. I was flooded with images as I was about to hit the car, but being only 19 I required some reruns. Nevertheless, I suffered a delayed muscle spasm along my spine which paralyzed me for a few days. This injury still haunts me to this day, and I haven't ridden a motorcycle ever since.

I was able to avoid accidents for several years after the motorcycle incident. During this time, I moved to Florida and learned to drive among the elderly, something that can be both entertaining and frustrating at the same time. It's kind of like Art Linkletter's old TV show, except named, "Fossils drive the darndest things." Some of the elderly drivers are so small, you cannot see their heads, only their hands on the steering wheel which makes it appear the automobile is driving itself. Strange, very strange. Now and then you read about an oddball incident involving an elderly driver in the newspaper, for example; there was an incident where a man was trying to park his car in a mall parking lot. He entered the spot crooked and decided to backup and straighten the car out. Unfortunately, he didn't realize his wife had already gotten out of the car and was standing behind him. When he backed up, he knocked her down and ran over her with his back tire, then he put the car back in drive and pulled forward over the "speed bump" for the second time. Then there was the story of an elderly couple who somehow found themselves driving on the Clearwater/St. Pete Airport's runway thinking it was part of the expressway. I could go on and on with stories about the elderly driving, and they would all be funny if it wasn't for the fact they end up doing a lot of damage to both themselves and others around them. Such was my misfortune.

About five years ago, I left my office in my SUV after work and headed home, just in time for rush hour. It also happened to be "snowbird" season, meaning our roads were filled with tourists. After exiting our office parking lot, I headed north on a main artery in Palm Harbor. As there was considerable traffic, I resigned myself to my fate that it would take quite some time to get home. Traffic lights were slow and caused lines to backup. In my case, I ended up at the very end of a long line. I thought I would never get home. As I sat there, I happened to look into my rear-view mirror and noticed the next motorist rapidly approaching me. I thought it was coming rather fast, but felt the driver would have ample time to stop. To my horror, I suddenly realized the car wasn't going to decelerate, let alone stop. I braced myself for impact before the car plowed into me at about 40mph. Not only was I hit, but the car pushed me into the next car in front of me and I began to picture myself crushed like an accordion. Fortunately, this didn't happen as the car behind me finally stopped. At first, I was stuck in my car stunned by what had just happened. Paramedics and police were summoned by a witness, and I snapped out of it. Only then did I find out what happened. Evidently, an elderly woman was driving home, became preoccupied with something in her purse, and didn't realize anyone was stopped in front of her. The front-end of her car looked as bad as the back-end of mine, and the paramedics took care in extracting her from her vehicle and sending her to the hospital. To this day, I still keep a nervous eye on my rear-view mirror.

The pièce de résistance of my accidents though happened this past November, whereby I had gone to lunch at a local restaurant and left my car in the adjoining striped parking lot, believing it to be safe and sound. As it turns out, it was anything but that. As I settled into a Philly Cheese Steak, an elderly woman swung open the front door and yelled, "Does anyone own a black car? There's been an accident in the parking lot." She appeared to be rather upset and had tears on her face. She was heavyset and hobbled around with a cast on her right foot.

At first, I suspected it was the problem of somebody else as I had a dark-brown car, not black. Then it occurred to me she might be suffering from cataracts. I therefore got up and went outside to check my car. When I turned the corner to the parking lot, my eye saw a dark car with its rear-end up and on top of a silver Mitsubishi Eclipse. It was such a distorted scene, I didn't recognize the vehicle as my own. In fact, it looked rather comical and I felt a brief sense of pity for the person who owned it. Then, the harsh reality came over me; it was my car after all, and a spirit of dread consumed me. "What happened to my car?" I demanded (although I said this with a fervent gusto as reality set in).

The elderly couple had left the restaurant just as we entered it, he in an electric wheelchair, and his wife hobbling around on her cast foot. After securing the wheelchair on the back of their Mazda mini-SUV, the husband got into the driver's seat of the vehicle. He then put the SUV into reverse and began to backup. When he thought he had gone back far enough, he went to apply the brakes, which he missed and hit the accelerator instead, thereby plowing into the back of my car. Evidently, the wheelchair assembly on the back of his vehicle acted like a wedge and lifted up the rear of my car and pushed it up and on-top of the silver Mitsubishi next to me. Interestingly, a woman had been sitting in the driver's seat sending a text message to a friend when the accident occurred. Realizing my car was being pushed up on top of her convertible, she bent down and escaped through the passenger's side door. She would have certainly been crushed had my car fallen, but the convertible's safety bar held and the woman escaped unharmed.

Thus began the long process of calling 911, the Florida State Highway Patrol, tow trucks to separate and remove the vehicles, and the tedium of notifying insurance carriers. Even though I hadn't been in the car when the accident occurred, I certainly felt like a victim and became rather bitter about the experience. It proves that George Costanza of Seinfeld fame was right, you can eat and have sex simultaneously (by getting screwed when you least expect it). To see a brief video on the vehicles being separated, click HERE.

The next day I went to the web site of the Clerk of the Courts to see what I could find out about the person who hit me. As it turned out, since 1999 he had ten moving violations, everything from speeding, to failure to obey traffic signals, to operating a vehicle without insurance. Now this. This made me wonder what insurance carrier would provide coverage to someone with such a bad driving record. Further, why hadn't the State of Florida revoked his license a long time ago. I have sympathy for the elderly and handicapped, but this was just plain ridiculous.

I know plenty of people in their 80's and 90's who can competently operate their vehicles down here, but many do not belong on the highway. Period. I have one friend in his mid-80's who realized his eyesight was failing and was smart enough to voluntarily surrender his driver's license to the sheriff's office, but he is an exception as opposed to the rule in Florida. Most of the senior citizens need to get around town to tend to their chores, such as shopping and eating, but they pose a genuine threat to safety on the highways. I wish we could easily identify such people, so we can be more alert when they are around us, kind of like "belling the cat," but alas, we cannot.

We can joke about the driving habits of the elderly, but anyone who doesn't drive defensively around them is asking for trouble. Between them and the erratic driving habits of tourists visiting Florida during the winter months, I am frankly surprised more people are not killed on the highways in this state. Maybe we need to post signs on the highways as people enter the state: "Welcome to Florida, Home of Jurassic Driving. You've been warned."

Keep the Faith!

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Copyright © 2013 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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