When a Disoriented Senior Wants to Drive

Bernie Padden, 92, stood alone on a Montclair, N.J., street corner. He seemed confused and disoriented as he wandered around, stopping passersby, and asking, "Excuse me, can you help me find my car?"

Nearly everyone who saw him stopped to lend a hand: "Just relax, don't worry, we'll find your car," one young woman assured him.

These helpful strangers soon discovered not only that his car was right in front of him but that he had forgotten how to start it, and how to put it into gear. Even so, all of them watched him get behind the wheel and drive off.

According to Peter Reed, senior director of programs for the Alzheimer's Association, the decision to take away a senior's keys isn't simple.

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"It's a really difficult decision to make for any person and for a family, because it's a part of who we are," he said. "It's our independence; it's how we get around."

It certainly is a difficult decision and, as our population ages, it's a decision more and more of us will face.

Grim Statistics

Although most senior citizens are careful behind the wheel, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drivers older than 70 have a higher fatality rate per mile than any other group, except people under 25. And most of those fatalities happened at some kind of crossroads.

A 2007 study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that 40 percent of serious crashes at intersections involved people older than 70. Add to this the fact that the number of elderly drivers is projected to double to 70 million by the year 2030 and you have the makings of a potentially dangerous problem.

Driving Dilemma

On the street, Padden knew nothing of this danger. In fact, he wasn't asking people to find his car anymore; he began handing them the keys and asking them to start it.

"Can you try it for me?" he asked passerby Russell Heltzer.

"You want me to get in the car and start it?" Heltzer asked.

Padden nodded and Heltzer slipped behind the wheel, keys in hand.

"You got to turn it all the way," Padden said, as the car roared to life. "Now, it's on."

Heltzer climbed out of the car, careful to hold the door as Padden sat in the driver's seat. "Put your seat belt on, it's not on yet," Heltzer cautioned, as he waited for the confused senior to back out of his parking space.

"Keep going, keep going ...," Heltzer said, before noticing a large, black motorcycle directly in the path of Padden's car.

"Stop the car, stop the car," Heltzer yelled.

Too late. The late model sedan slammed into the bike, knocking it to the ground with a loud crash.

What Would You Do?

Heltzer took out his cell phone and called someone he thought was the old man's son. "I'm with your father," Heltzer said. "He hit a motorbike."

But the voice on the other end of the line was actually an ABC News producer working for "What Would You Do?" And the elderly man was an actor taking part in ABC's hidden camera experiment.

ABC News correspondent John Quinones approached Heltzer with a camera crew. "What should a person do if you'd seen something like this in real life?" Quinones asked.

"I should have said, 'Are you OK to drive?'" Heltzer said.

"He clearly was not OK to drive," said Quinones.

"No, he was not," Heltzer said.

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