On the day before Thanksgiving, the story headlining Pittsburgh media outlets read “Pittsburgh woman who had been due to give birth was fatally struck by an elderly driver in a Rite-Aid Pharmacy parking lot”. The New York Daily News further reported that Jodie Guthrie, 30, was outside the pharmacy when an 88-year-old driver pushed the gas instead of the brake and struck and killed the expectant mother, leaving the newborn child in critical but stable condition.
Tragically, Marrgaret Tilly, 74, was “crushed and killed” after her 81-year-old husband backed into her after she got out of their car in a fruit market parking lot in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. As reported by the News-Herald, “Mrs. Tilly, was standing next to the vehicle to help guide her 80-year-old husband into a parking spot. The passenger door of the vehicle was open, when her husband accidentally hit the gas pedal, sending the car in reverse. The passenger door knocked Mrs. Tilly down and she was run over. She later died at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland.”
According to a report by the Erie Insurance Company, twenty percent of all accidents happen in parking lots. What’s more, 52 percent of injuries resulting from back-over accidents occur in parking lots.
Parking lots are home to a flurry of activity in a relatively small amount of space. Add unique layouts, traffic patterns that vary by parking lot, bicyclist and pedestrian traffic, and it’s easy to see why so many accidents happen in parking lots. Personal injury attorneys often refer to parking lots as “accident magnets”.
Why do these types of tragedies happen and is there anything we can do to prevent them? Why do so many of them involve older drivers? Those are questions that come with no easy answers, but opening a dialog on the subject is certainly a good starting point. The purpose of this article is to initiate thought and conversation on the issue in hopes of generating new ideas and bringing additional awareness to a safety concern that affects all of us.
This article is not meant to address the issue of older drivers and storefront crashes, nor is it meant to address the science of parking lot design. Our aim here is to simply create a discussion on the issue of older driver safety in parking lots. As such, this article could best be outlined as follows:
- Four causes of parking lot tragedies involving older drivers
- pedal misapplication
- driver inattention or distractions
- backing errors caused by strength and flexibility declines
- declines in vision
- Tips for older drivers in preventing parking lot crashes
In no way is this article meant to be an assault against older drivers. Make no mistake about it; the phenomenon of parking lot crashes is not unique to older drivers. The problem is that older drivers are grossly over-represented in parking lot tragedies.
Four Causes of Parking Lot Tragedies Involving Older Drivers
Parking lots can often be places of chaos, confusion and, occasionally, tragedy. Although complex in nature, there are some common factors that consistently show themselves in these types of crashes. Let’s take a quick look at four reasons these tragedies occur and why older drivers are involved in so many parking lot crashes.
1) Pedal misapplication
In its simplest terms, pedal misapplication is nothing more than “confusing the gas pedal for the brake pedal”. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in crashes involving pedal application errors, there is significant over-involvement by the youngest (age 16 to 20) and oldest (76 years of age and older) drivers. Both of the tragic stories mentioned above involved pedal application errors.
The term “pedal application error” gained popularity after the 2003 crash in Santa Monica, California, when an 86-year-old George Weller pressed the accelerator instead of the brake, launching his Buick into a crowd of shoppers at an outdoor market, and killed 10 pedestrians and injured 63 others. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; he was hitting people and they were just flying,” said one witness. “You would think it would have slowed him down, but it didn’t.” A subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that the Farmer’s Market crash was caused by the driver’s “inadvertent acceleration when he intended to brake”.
Although many possible explanations exist for every incident of pedal misapplication, declines in an older driver’s physical abilities (neuropathy, etc.) as well as declines in cognitive functioning (dementias, etc.) are prominent contributing factors.
2) Driver inattention or distractions
In Oklahoma City, a 3-year-old child was struck and killed in a McDonald’s parking lot by a driver that was reportedly “distracted” by another vehicle. As we age, we can experience more difficulty in dividing our attention among multiple tasks and in switching rapidly from one task to another. Difficulty in task management (declines in executive functioning) can be especially dangerous when maneuvering a vehicle through a busy or poorly designed parking lot. Monitoring a GPS or vehicle navigation system, tuning the radio or even listening to conversations among passengers can prove most disruptive.
Parking lots are very busy places and they can be rather stressful. Dodging near misses, getting cut off, searching for that perfect parking spot, avoiding run-away shopping carts (and children!) and the like can quickly task even the sharpest drivers. An older driver’s ability to keep distractions to a minimum is paramount to his or her safety, as well as to the safety of other parking lot users.
By their very nature, parking lots are a haven of outside distractions. In addition to those “naturally occurring” distractions, NHTSA confirms what we already know; driver distraction from secondary (in-vehicle) sources is increasingly recognized as a significant cause of injuries and fatalities. Listening to the radio or carrying on an in-depth conversation with your passenger only serve to erode your ability to focus on the naturally-occurring distractions that a parking lot presents.
3) Backing errors caused by strength and flexibility declines
As we age, it is not uncommon to lose certain physical attributes that are important for safe driving, particularly in our strength, coordination, range of motion, flexibility and reaction time. All of these attributes contribute to the ability of an older driver to remain a safe driver.
WebMD reports that from the time you are born until around the time you turn thirty, your muscles grow larger and stronger. But at some point in your thirties, you begin to lose muscle mass and function. People who are physically inactive can lose as much as 3% to 5% of their muscle mass per decade after age thirty.
Studies consistently show a positive link between an older driver’s flexibility and their driving performance. As part of a story in the Hartford-Courant newspaper (Hartford, CT) titled “Older Drivers Benefit from Exercise”, a 74-year-old retiree explained “It’s harder to turn around now to look for blind spots,” he said. “Backing up is a real issue too.”
The article was based on a study conducted by The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence and the M.I.T. Age Lab, and looked at the effects of exercise on older drivers’ strength, flexibility, coordination and range of motion. The study found that drivers who exercised for 15-20 minutes daily reported greater ease in turning their heads to look in blind spots when changing lanes or backing up, compared to a group that did not exercise. The exercise group could also rotate their bodies further and were able to get in and out of their cars with greater ease, which translates to improved flexibility.
For all of us, regardless of age, it is a good practice to eliminate or at least minimize backing wherever possible. Matt Gurwell, retired Ohio State Trooper and founder of Senior Care Authority’s “Beyond Driving with Dignity” program, reminds us to “Avoid backing maneuvers whenever possible. If we were meant to be good backer-uppers, our driver’s seat would be facing out the back window”.
4) Declines in vision
The natural aging process is not always kind. In addition to a propensity to lose some of our strength and flexibility, our vision begins to change as well. Eventually we may lose our ability to distinguish details and our field of vision can begin to narrow. Obviously, declining eyesight is likely to have an adverse effect on critical driving functions.
A narrowing of our visual field makes it harder to see objects on the edge of our visual field such as signs, signals, vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. The density of our eye’s lenses increases, making it hard to see in low light conditions. We may have increased sensitivity to glare, making it hard to see in the presence of oncoming headlights at night or in the presence of sun glare in the daytime.
KTLA-5 in Los Angeles led their newscast with “Woman Fatally Struck by 91-Year-Old Driver in Post Office Parking Lot”. A Los Angeles police detective reported “The driver did not see the woman”.
The root cause of older drivers reporting that they didn’t “see” a pedestrian in the parking lot could stem from a number of sources. Authentic vision concerns can include anything from refractive errors, age-related macular degeneration or glaucoma, to cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, or a decline in peripheral vision. Consideration should also be given to the fact that ninety percent of the information we need to respond to driving cues comes through our eyes, making vision the single most important sense for safe driving.
In a project by the National Safety Council (NSC) titled “Understanding the Distracted Brain”, researchers found that distracted drivers have a tendency to “look at” but not “see” objects. Distracted drivers experience what researchers call inattention blindness, similar to that of tunnel vision. According to the study, drivers are looking out the windshield, but they do not process everything in their driving environment, which significantly limits their ability to effectively monitor their surroundings, seek and identify potential hazards, and respond to unexpected situations.
Tips for Older Drivers in Preventing Parking Lot Crashes
So what can the older driver do to mitigate the likelihood of being involved in a parking lot crash? Below is a cursory list of suggestions:
- Use only pull-through parking spots; don’t park in a spot that you will have to back out of!
- Take-up enjoyable activities like gardening, swimming, walking, etc. to help keep you in good physical shape.
- Talk to your doctor about recommended exercises designed to maintain the flexibility and strength needed for safe driving.
- Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing any type of peripheral neuropathy, especially in your hands or feet.
- Remain vigilant and expect the unexpected (child running in front of your car, etc.).
- Consider vehicle adaptations to mitigate the potential of an accident (oversize rear view mirrors to help eliminate blind spots, adjustable foot pedals, etc.).
- Correctly set the outside mirrors. Consider adding blind spot mirrors to the side mirrors.
- When possible, park away from other cars, and don’t park in a spot that you will have to BACK out of!
- Do not drive if you are taking medications that might impair your judgment, vision, reflexes, etc.
- Take advantage of new technology such as parking assist features, collision avoidance systems and rear view cameras (which can be added after-market).
- Remain alert to cars reversing by watching for backup lights. If a car begins backing up, get out of the way or make sure the driver can see you.
- Use only pull-through parking spots; don’t park in a spot that you will have to back out of!
- Practice good defensive driving skills.
- Shop on lower volume days, which equates to less parking lot congestion. The Time Use Institute reports that the least crowded shopping days are Mondays and Tuesdays.
- Wear appropriate shoes for driving and make sure your floor mat is positioned properly.
- Keep the windows clear and void of obstructions; use the vehicle’s defrosters to your full advantage.
- Tap your horn (similar to a back-up warning system found on construction vehicles) before backing.
- Eliminate as many in-vehicle distractions as possible (turn the radio off, discontinue conversations and remember to leave any pets at home).
- Lastly…use only pull-through parking spots; don’t park in a spot that you will have to back out of!
Parking lot crashes involving older drivers can be caused by any number of contributing factor(s), including but not limited to driver inattention, distractions from either inside or outside of the vehicle, declining muscle mass, medication issues, pedal misapplication, mental fitness and declines in cognition, medical emergencies, pre-existing medical conditions, declining vision, fatigue, poor flexibility, unfamiliarity with the vehicle, improper seat or mirror positioning, improper blood sugar levels, or in some very rare cases…just plain carelessness.
Simply by having a better understanding of the dangers parking lots pose, remaining vigilant and applying any number of the tips listed above is sure to improve parking lot safety for older drivers and pedestrians alike.
Authored by Matt Gurwell, founder of the “Beyond Driving with Dignity” program. Visit the “Beyond Driving with Dignity” website at www.beyonddrivingwithdignity.com to learn more about Senior Care Authority’s “Enhanced Self-Assessment Program” for older drivers, or to schedule a presentation for your group, business, or organization.
Matt Gurwell is the developer of the nationally-recognized “Beyond Driving with Dignity” program. He currently lectures throughout the United States on topics related to the aging process and its adverse affects on driving skills. As developer of this life-saving program, Matt’s mission is to provide strategies and guidance to seniors that will help them to continue driving safely until the decision is made to retire from their driving career. The “Beyond Driving with Dignity” program also provides an excellent array of services and resources for both families and professionals as they deal with this very sensitive issue. Matt retired from a very distinguished and successful 24-year career as an Assistant District Commander with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. After leaving the Patrol, Matt has participated in a tremendous amount of work in the area of older driver research, best practices, current vehicle safety technologies, and adaptive equipment. Matt's creative, innovative and common sense approach, combined with his uncanny ability to bring calm and resolve to stressful situations without ever jeopardizing the dignity of others, has contributed greatly to the success of the “Beyond Driving with Dignity” program. When asked what the ultimate motivation was for starting the program, Matt explains: "There was never one particular event. It was the result of 20-plus years of holding dying people in my arms at terrible car accidents, and delivering dozens and dozens of death notifications to families. I would much rather work with families to bring a peaceful resolve to this sensitive and uncomfortable issue now, rather than have them deal with it when a State Trooper is knocking on their front door". Matt serves as Senior Care Authority’s Program Director for the “Beyond Driving with Dignity” program. Senior Care Authority (https://www.seniorcareauthority.com) is now the nation’s exclusive provider of the “Beyond Driving with Dignity” program.