After Fatal Crash, Questions Arise About Elderly Driver
After the day was done — and a crash had killed an expectant mother and left her baby in critical condition — the questions began.
Why did 88-year-old Allen Massie drive into Jodie Guthrie, 30, as she leaned against a wall Wednesday outside a Rite Aid pharmacy on the North Side? Did he have Alzheimer’s disease, as one family member told reporters, and if so, why was he driving?
Experts say such questions are common after crashes involving older drivers and so is the answer: Many states have little legal authority to prevent older drivers from getting behind the wheel, even when they have shown signs of dangerous behavior.
“When it comes to re-licensing drivers, states do not look at whether people can effectively drive,” said Susan Cohen, founder of Americans for Older Driver Safety, a Kansas-based advocacy group. “That is what needs to happen throughout the United States, and it’s not.”
Police haven’t decided whether Mr. Massie will be charged. Accident reconstruction investigators believe he might have hit the accelerator instead of the brake while pulling into a Rite Aid parking space at Brighton Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, sending his Dodge Caravan speeding into the wall.
That’s where police say he hit Ms. Guthrie, who was 8½ months pregnant. Crushed against the wall for more than 30 seconds, she was rushed to Allegheny General Hospital, where she died.
Doctors were able to save her baby, a boy she planned to name Trace. He is in critical condition at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, the boy’s uncle said Friday.
Friends and family have started a GoFundMe account for Ms. Guthrie’s fiance, George Weatherwalk, and their son. Donations are being collected at www.gofundme.com/all4trace.
The couple met in Pittsburgh, said Thom Cullen, Mr. Weatherwalk’s brother. He is a painter; she had volunteered at a day care center until recently.
Although she had met her fiance’s family only once, Ms. Guthrie made a good impression.
“She definitely was a warm person,” Mr. Cullen said. “It was comfort. She had a comforting feeling about her.”
Now he’s worried for his brother. Mr. Weatherwalk doesn’t have medical insurance, his brother said, and he’s facing the prospect of raising his child alone.
“George has experienced every emotion in the gamut of emotions over the course of the [past] 48 hours … everything from anger and not understanding and sadness,” Mr. Cullen said. “He tries to think of the good things that they’ve done.”
Police said Mr. Massie has cooperated fully with the investigation. Officers took him to police headquarters for questioning after the accident, releasing him Wednesday night. His 61-year-old wife accompanied him.
Police might ask a doctor to determine whether Mr. Massie should be allowed to keep his driver’s license, Pittsburgh Major Crimes Lt. Daniel Herrmann said.
It’s unclear whether Mr. Massie, who had no previous driving violations on record in Pennsylvania, might face criminal charges, but experts say there’s little question that accidents involving elderly drivers are a problem. Pennsylvania has nearly 1.5 million drivers age 65 or older, making up 17
percent of the state’s driving population, according to the state Department of Transportation.
PennDOT does not conduct comprehensive testing of older drivers but each month randomly selects 1,900 drivers older than 45 who are required to undergo vision testing and a physical exam prior to their license renewal. If results warrant, those selected may be required to complete a driving and knowledge test.
Pennsylvania is one of the few states that require doctors to notify PennDOT if patients develop a condition that would impair their driving ability, Ms. Cohen said.
Short of that, trying to convince an older relative that it’s time to give up the car keys can be difficult. Ms. Cohen suggests taking a gentle tack: ride as a passenger and note mistakes before sitting down to talk.
She also has developed educational materials for older drivers that she hopes to distribute in partnership with the Jewish Association on Aging in Squirrel Hill.
“We have extended longevity to such a great deal that we are now outliving our safe driving years,” Ms. Cohen said. “People don’t realize they need to plan to retire from driving. People assume they can drive until they die.”