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In the Driver’s Seat : At Age 99, Ex-Mechanic Keeps Up With Those in the Fast Lane

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let’s just say John H. Chapman deserves the very senior citizen discount on his car insurance.

You see, this 99-year-old former mechanic is not only of sound mind and body, he still drives.

And one of his pet peeves: Older people who drive too slowly for their--and everybody else’s--good.

“You get on the freeway and there’s a slow-mover, nine times out of 10 you look over and it’s an old gray-hair. I say, if you can’t keep up with the flow of traffic, well then, maybe you ought not be on the road.”

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Then there’s cruise control: “Don’t trust it.”

Metered on-ramps: “Do they do any good? You wait 15, 16 seconds, and when you get on the freeway it’s still congested.”

And factory-installed cassette decks: “I guess you’re supposed to put records in there.”

Well, actually, it’s for tapes, but such innovations were hardly de rigueur when Chapman first hit the road in 1910.

Blessed with a ready wit and vigor to spare, Chapman recently walked into a Department of Motor Vehicles building in Laguna Hills, aced a driving test and got a new license. It authorizes him to be driving past 100 and makes him one of the oldest registered drivers in the state.

“That’s all I want, to be able to say I drove at 100,” said the man who was born the year before actor-comedian George Burns--everybody’s favorite senior citizen.

“That’s an accomplishment.”

Actually, as of July, 1993, dozens of Californians over the age of 99 had been issued driver’s licenses. Although there is a widespread perception that Chapman and his fellow nonagenarians and centenarians are menaces on the road, it is not entirely deserved.

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“There’s a lot of ageism going around,” DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff said.

Older drivers actually get in fewer accidents each year than very young drivers, the DMV said.

For every 100 drivers 85 and older, an average of 4.8 are involved in accidents per year. By comparison, for every 100 drivers 16 to 19 years old, 9.4 get in accidents in a year.

Drivers between the ages of 45 and 84 have the fewest number of accidents.

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Although DMV statistics show that drivers over age 85 are involved in more serious accidents per mile than other age groups, it is roughly equivalent to the danger posed by younger drivers--4.5 accidents per 1 million miles for drivers age 16 to 19, compared to 5.5 accidents per million miles for drivers 85 and up.

Basically, if someone advocates barring people over 70 from driving because of the increased danger they pose, then, Nossoff said, “we’d have to--on the same grounds--take licenses away from men under the age of 24 and women under the age of 20.”

Because of impaired vision and duller reflexes, older drivers do tend to drive slower and make ill-advised turns and lane changes, DMV officials say. But statistics show time and again that the most dangerous violation is speeding, and older drivers as a group are not guilty of that anywhere near as often as their younger counterparts.

Chapman is a perfect example of why some older drivers are safer bets than younger ones: They are experienced, they drive less and they stay out of trouble.

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In three years, Chapman has logged only 4,800 miles on his glossy white Saturn, which he washes himself.

On a recent day, he left his Irvine townhome and drove off to see the “tax man.”

As he chugged down the San Diego Freeway, he was no speed demon, but he does not mind pushing it to 60, even 65, to keep up with the flow of traffic. In fact, he says the speed limit should be increased.

“Cars today are . . . made to go faster,” he said.

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