Family turns sorrow over death into push to park unfit older drivers
EAU CLAIRE More than four months after the driver of an SUV killed their brother as he rode his bicycle on a marked path, Kirk Cartwright’s siblings still can’t believe he died that way.
On June 29, as Cartwright, 51, rode his bicycle on the bike path along the 1100 block of West Clairemont Avenue in Eau Claire, 90-year-old Archie Vanwormer left the roadway and drove his truck onto the path, striking and killing Cartwright.
Cartwright’s family members hope his death will prompt legislative changes designed to get unfit older drivers off the road. They are proposing that drivers 65 and older pass a road test every two years in order to demonstrate they are capable drivers. The family hopes to call the legislation Kirk’s Law.
Current Wisconsin law states that drivers must renew their driver’s license every eight years, which requires passing only a vision test. There are no special provisions for elderly drivers.
Cartwright’s family members say they can’t understand how Vanwormer was allowed to drive in his condition.
“As soon as I heard anything about it at all I said, ‘Why is he driving?’ “ Cartwright’s sister Rebecca Snyder of Eau Claire told the Leader-Telegram of Eau Claire. “Kirk was killed for absolutely no reason. He was riding a bike on a bike path.”
Vanwormer was charged in Eau Claire County Court with felony counts of homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle and hit-and-run resulting in death. He later was deemed incompetent to stand trial.
Several of Cartwright’s sisters are nearing 65. One sister, Dawn Pierce, 58, of Eau Claire, said she’d submit to a road test.
“Why can’t older drivers be tested after a certain age to see if they are fit to drive? I would be willing to do so, and I’m no where near 90-years-old. Driving is a privilege, not a right,” Pierce said.
Rebecca Snyder, 61, said her family has not yet spoken with state legislators regarding their proposal but plans to do so soon. They hope others will speak out as well in support of their efforts.
While people are sympathetic to Cartwright’s family, not everyone would support the law they’re proposing.
Driving tests aren’t the best way to prevent car crashes among seniors, said Nancy Thompson, a spokeswoman for AARP, the nation’s largest advocacy group for older citizens.
She said while stories like Cartwright’s are heartbreaking, lawmakers should focus on the best solutions.
“The logical thing that the families want to do is to do anything that they can so this doesn’t happen to another family. And it just makes so much sense,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, there’s no research, no data, that suggests that testing old people is going to reduce the number of crashes. There needs to be another way to reach their goal.”
Thompson said one of the best ways to identify seniors no longer capable of driving is scheduling in-person driver renewals.
“That’s been shown to identify older people who are not capable of driving,” Thompson said.
State Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon City, said he agrees shortening the number of years between license renewals for seniors would be a good idea.
“That’s one thing if the person is 60 years old and they go and they get their eye test and the next time they go in they’re 68,” said Petrowski, who has chaired the Assembly Transportation Committee and could head the Senate transportation panel next legislative session. “But if somebody is 75 and they’re not going to renew for another eight years, well, guess what, they’re going to be well into their 80s … I do believe there is support for reducing that eight-year renewal.”
State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, said offering senior citizens who agree to take safe-driving classes reduced insurance rates could prompt safer driving.
“That’s a way to deal with it in a carrot way instead of a stick way,” Vinehout said. “It’s sort of a totally different way of thinking about it than what the victim’s family is thinking about, but from a legislative perspective it might be more effective.”
AARP currently offers driver education classes for seniors at locations such as L.E. Phillips Senior Center in Eau Claire.
Vinehout said the difficulty with legislating senior driving is there isn’t a magic age at which driving skills deteriorate.
“Part of the issue is how do you find that balance,” she said. “Clearly there are 90-year-olds who are capable of driving, and there are 70-year-olds and 65-year-olds and even 55-year-olds who are taking some combination of medicine that are dangerous on the roads.”
Lucy Starrett, a 70-year-old Eau Claire resident, said she’s perfectly capable of driving. But she is sympathetic to the issue of potentially dangerous senior drivers, having watched her elderly father struggle with driving.
Starrett recalls an incident in which she had to take the wheel from her father after he had stopped in the wrong lane of traffic.
However, Starrett said her mother drove capably until her death at age 86.
Starrett generally agrees with the proposal by Cartwright’s family. But mandating the road test at age 65 is too early, she said.
“I’m thinking 65 is a little too young,” Starrett said. “I drive across the country, and I’m 70.”
Still, Starrett said family members and physicians need to step in and take the keys away when elderly residents lose their cognitive or motor skills.
Research from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation shows that senior drivers aren’t necessarily more likely to get in a crash than others. They are, however, much more likely to be involved in fatal crashes.
Older drivers generally have low rates of police-reported crashes, which usually include severe crashes or incidents with injuries, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. However, based on insurance claims, the nonprofit organization determined that seniors are more likely to be involved in minor crashes.
Thompson, the AARP spokeswoman, agrees that family members and doctors need to convince senior drivers who no longer can operate vehicles safely to give up their keys.
“Each of us has a responsibility to look out for our own skills and the skills of our family, whether they’re younger drivers or older drivers,” Thompson said.
Once senior citizens stop driving, their children and relatives must help adjust to life without a car.
“People talk about driving being a symbol of independence. It’s more than a symbol. In our society … without a car you can’t get around,” Thompson said.
That is especially true in rural Wisconsin, Petrowksi said. He said he would back limiting senior drivers to operating vehicles only during daylight hours and to certain destinations.
Kirk Cartwrights’ sisters say they can’t understand why someone—Vanwormer’s family, his physician, a caretaker or someone else—didn’t stop him from driving.
They’re also upset Vanwormer didn’t stand trial.
“How old do you have to be to get away with murder?” Rebecca Snyder asked.
Mostly, however, they say they miss their brother, a man who never drove but rather rode his bike everywhere. He was one of 10 children and was a charming child, his sisters say.
They remember the little boy who sat in front of their home, taking old women by the hand as he talked with them while walking to the end of the block. Later in life, Kirk was his sisters’ go-to handy man.
“Whatever I needed done, he did it, and he was always in a good mood,” said the family’s eldest sibling, Vicky Snyder, 63, of Eau Claire.
Kirk was no angel, his sisters say, acknowledging their brother’s faults. He struggled to hold down a job and at times stole from people.
When Kirk was a small boy he suffered a severe injury to the back of the head when he fell off a toy wagon. Rebecca Snyder wonders if that accident contributed to her brother’s problems as an adult.
In recent years Kirk had begun to turn his life around, his sisters say, making it even harder to lose him.
“It’s just such an awful thing to go through,” Vicky Snyder said.
Information from: Leader-Telegram, www.leadertelegram.com