Child's death revives driving debate

Should the old face restrictions?

Staff WriterAugust 21, 2009 

  • State Rep. William McGee, who voted against an effort to require stricter regulation of older drivers this year, noted that there are other means to keep unsafe drivers off the road. Among them:

    The Division of Motor Vehicles' Medical Review Section can review drivers of any age whose abilities are in question. Referrals can be made by anyone and can be anonymous. Phone: 861-3570

    Staff at DMV offices can make applicants go through higher levels of testing if they see problems with vision or road-signs tests, or for any reason.

    Friends or relatives can have a heart-to-heart talk with a driver. One approach is at: www.thehartford.com/talkwitholderdrivers.

— The death of a Raleigh child who police say was struck by an 83-year-old driver could mean a renewed push for stricter regulation of older drivers, said a legislator who helped kill such an effort this spring.

Rep. William McGee, a Forsyth County Republican, said Thursday that the life of Green Elementary School student Ashley E. Ramos-Hernandez, 6, would likely not have been saved by the proposed legislation to road-test drivers over 85 and shorten license terms for those over 75.

Ramos-Hernandez died after stepping off a school bus and getting hit by a sport utility vehicle driven by Geraldine Baron Deitz, 83, police said. Deitz faces misdemeanor charges of death by motor vehicle and passing a stopped bus.

"The bill itself would not have not prevented this tragedy in all likelihood -- I don't know whether the lady would have passed any sort of test that would have been given," said McGee, who led efforts to water down key provisions of the bill in an April committee meeting.

"It does give some ammunition and powder to those who want to institute some sort of shorter time frame for those who reach those years."

Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Johnston County Republican and a sponsor of the bill, said opposition from advocates for older people killed a worthwhile effort to keep roads safer. The bill set stricter standards for licensing drivers over 75.

On Thursday afternoon, several residents in the North Hills Drive area and friends of Ramos-Hernandez' parents dropped off flowers, candles, notes and stuffed animals at the corner where she was struck -- North Hills Drive and Hillock Drive. At least one resident thought Deitz' age might have contributed to the accident.

"It's shocking when something like this happens so close to your home," said Preston Wade, 22. "And this wasn't about speed or anything. It's about an elderly person driving who maybe shouldn't have been."

Efforts to reach Deitz by telephone and at her house were unsuccessful Thursday.

'There is no pattern'

Ramos-Hernandez was the eighth North Carolina student killed since 1999 in incidents in which drivers passed stopped school buses, said Derek Graham, transportation services section chief at the state Department of Public Instruction. An analysis of the fatal crashes shows that the drivers ranged in age from 17 to 83, Dietz' age, with an average age of about 46.

"There is no pattern," Graham said. "This is by far the oldest driver that I am aware of in that sequence of events." He noted that drivers ignore the stop-arms on school buses an estimated 2,000 times a day in the state.

Proposals to increase regulation of older drivers have often stirred an emotional response, locally and nationally. Proponents cite the high rate of crashes per mile for older drivers, and opponents note that they drive less often and have fewer crashes per driver. Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show that male drivers older than 85 have about 16 crashes per million miles traveled, compared to about 18 for 16-year-old males over that distance. Boys that age are among the most dangerous drivers.

"When they get to be a certain age," Daughtry said, "older drivers don't have the mindset and the reflexes they need to drive safely."

But Bill Hall, a University of North Carolina researcher, said there's no magic formula for knowing which drivers should have their licenses more heavily restricted.

"By and large, the research community agrees that it's not an issue of aging; it's an issue of functional ability," said Hall, manager for occupant protection programs at UNC's Highway Safety Research Center.

"As long as someone functions well, there's no reason they shouldn't be driving regardless of their age."

What witnesses said

According to police reports, Deitz was traveling east on North Hills Drive when she approached a school bus that was stopped, facing west, at the intersection of North Hills Drive and Hillock Drive.

Deitz told police the bus lights and stop signs were not activated when she continued along North Hills and struck Ramos-Hernandez. But witnesses told police the bus signals were working and Deitz disregarded them.

New statute

Starting in December, a driver who ignores a school-bus signal arm and kills someone will be more likely to be prosecuted for a felony. Those are the terms of a law that legislators did pass during the last session -- the Nicholas Adkins School Bus Safety Act. The law is named for a Rockingham County high school student killed in January when a driver ignored an extended school-bus signal arm.

"On a date in the future, the legislature has decided that this conduct would be a felony," said Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby.

Under current state law, Willoughby said, ignoring a school-bus signal to stop does not amount to "culpable negligence," shown by conduct such as high-speed or reckless driving. Culpable negligence is required to elevate a misdemeanor death-by-vehicle charge to the level of a felony.

Staff writer Ray Martin contributed to this story.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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