Helen Mason slid into the driver's seat of her 2002 Buick LeSabre and cranked the engine.
She clicked her seat belt, slipped the white four-door sedan into reverse and slowly backed out of her garage. It was time for her monthly pedicure.
She has carried out simple driving routines such as this longer than just about any motorist out there.
Mason turned 100 this spring, and the Plainview, Neb., woman still tools around town and travels the highways of northeast Nebraska.
Driving equals independence for Mason and motorists like her. Nationwide, older people are keeping their licenses longer and driving more miles than in the past. The most recent national figures show nearly 22 million licensed drivers 70 and older in 2008, up from 18 million a decade earlier.
In fact, right now, 40 Nebraskans who are 100 or older have valid driver's licenses. In the past 10 years that figure has ranged from a low of 25 to a high of 107.
At the end of 2011 there were 78, but 37 of those have died and one surrendered a license. In Iowa, there currently are 79. There also are about 1,000 licensed drivers age 95 to 99 in Nebraska, and 1,500 in Iowa.
Drivers in the 90-plus age range represent the extreme end of the nationwide trend toward older drivers — one the aging baby boom generation will keep pushing.
Doctors and therapists say medical advances such as more effective cataract surgeries and better arthritis treatments are allowing older drivers to stay behind the wheel longer.
“It's not really age. It's your health — mental and physical,” said Fred Zwonechek, administrator of the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety. “The people who are healthy into their 80s, 90s and over 100 have the capabilities to pass a driver exam and function well in traffic.”
Drivers 65 and older make up about 16 percent of Nebraska's licensed drivers, and they account for about the same percentage of accidents, said Beverly Neth, director of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles. In contrast, teen drivers represent about 7 percent of Nebraska drivers but account for 25 percent to 30 percent of accidents, Neth said.
Older drivers are more likely to use seat belts and less likely to drive at night, drive at high speeds or engage in risky driving behavior, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. Older drivers also are less likely to drink and drive, and it's doubtful they text while driving.
Zwonechek also said many older drivers, like Mason, live in small towns where people watch out for them and where driving doesn't have the kind of distractions that exist in Omaha or Lincoln.
Frailty in older drivers is a concern, however. When older drivers are in accidents they're more likely to suffer serious injuries or death than their younger counterparts, said Mary Schaer, a compliance officer in the Iowa Department of Transportation's Office of Driver Services.
Mason, who has outlived two husbands, said she's been rear-ended a few times over the years, but never injured.
Her driving career stretches more than 85 years. She renewed her license two years ago — it's good through 2015 — and said she impressed her examiner, who gave her an eye exam and a behind-the-wheel test.
We rode with Mason recently as she drove 30 miles from her home to T&T Nails & Spa in Norfolk.
After pulling out of her driveway she cruised down her street, sitting up straight and holding the wheel with both hands. She came to a smooth stop at an intersection, paused a few seconds, looked both ways and gently accelerated.
She flipped on her signal and turned onto Nebraska Highway 13, completing the turn smoothly and staying in her lane. She steered down the road at the appropriate speed and glanced periodically at her side and rearview mirrors, keeping an eye on other drivers.
She wore a light yellow top, crisp white slacks, white sandals and a white necklace with a gold-trimmed heart.
On the highway, Mason switched on the cruise control. She set it at 60 mph — the speed limit.
A silver Volkswagen Passat passed her. Mason was in no hurry.
“I'm not one of those that has to be first in line,” said Mason, who was born Helen Shively and raised in Omaha.
She said she takes every safety step she can. She drives the speed limit — no slower and no faster. When she knows she'll need to turn right soon, she moves into the right lane well in advance so she doesn't have to fight traffic.
A Plainview mechanic services her Buick regularly, making sure the brakes are good and the tires have proper tread. She also cleans her windshield before driving.
Her license does not restrict her to daytime driving, although it's common for licenses of older drivers to carry such limitations.
Restrictions range from wearing eyeglasses and using special mirrors to driving only within 5 miles of home, only in daylight or only on two-lane, two-way roads. Mason's license does require her to wear her glasses.
Although Nebraska licenses are good for five years for all ages, people 72 and older are required to renew in person rather than by mail or online. Not everyone who shows up at a Department of Motor Vehicles office gets a driving test, however. Neth said that's left to the discretion of examiners, who are trained to observe the physical and cognitive abilities of applicants. In addition to deciding which tests are necessary, they also have the discretion to deny renewal or restrict their licenses.
The DMV also can recall drivers to be tested after a license has been issued, Neth said. That happens between 1,000 and 1,200 times a year in Nebraska. The request to retest someone can come from law enforcement or from a concerned party, such as a family member or neighbor, she said.
Eighteen states have no restrictions on license renewal for older drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In New York, for example, licenses are good for 10 years and there are no special provisions for age.
The other 32 states have some type of restrictions, ranging from accelerated renewal to mandatory vision or road tests. In Iowa, where most licenses are good for five years, drivers 70 and older must renew every two years.
Of course, not everyone who holds a license actually drives.
Consider Florence Young of Omaha, who renewed her five-year license at 101 but decided the next year to hang up the keys.
The last time she applied for her license, Young said, the examiner couldn't believe she still was driving and gave her every test they had.
“I passed them all,” she said.
The Omahan, now 105, said she decided to stop driving because although she could see the cars in front of her, she just couldn't judge how far ahead they were.
“I couldn't see or hear as well,” she said. “I decided to quit.”
New research indicates that older drivers often voluntarily curb their driving. Researchers found that the more memory and physical mobility problems people develop, the more limits they place on their driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Self-policing is important, but it's not foolproof.
“Many self-restrict,” said Dr. Rebecca Reilly, medical director of the Geriatric Evaluation and Management Clinic at Methodist Hospital. “The trouble is, some people don't recognize that their driving skills are failing them, that there should be some limitations.”
This is especially true of people with forms of dementia.
The doctor said she has had to talk to families about taking a relative's car keys.
It's essential for families to monitor elderly drivers and seek evaluations if necessary, said Zwonechek, the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety official. Demand has grown for programs that evaluate the skills of older drivers.
Mason said she would give up her keys if she ever felt hampered by reflex problems or other troubles.
Natalie Peetz, one of Mason's grandchildren, said the family makes a point to drive with her regularly. Peetz, of Lincoln, said family members are confident Mason remains a safe driver, mainly because she's in good shape physically and mentally.
If you ask Mason the secret to her long life and good health, she'll talk about her daily dose of citrus. Every day she eats an orange, and has done so for decades. She doesn't know for certain if that aids longevity, but said she sure never gets colds.
Mason keeps her mind active playing bridge weekly with friends. Many mornings, she plays solitaire after breakfast. She also loves reading mysteries and other books. She golfed for years, and played into her 80s.
These days she stays fit through her regular routine. That includes vacuuming and dusting her two-bedroom home, watering the red geraniums on her patio, fixing meals and doing laundry and ironing. She also bakes and is known for her chocolate chip cookies and a mean pecan pie.
Mason, trim at about 5-foot-3 and 125 pounds, also gets exercise picking up groceries in Plainview and shopping at other stores.
“I keep busy,” said Mason, who has two children and five grandchildren.
She said she drives about three times a week. Most of her trips are short, such as to the town post office or a friend's house.
Over the years she's driven in every state except Alaska, in all types of vehicles, such as a VW Beetle with a stick shift and even a cattle truck.
Her recent drive from home to the pedicure shop in Norfolk went smoothly.
Mason said she loves the freedom of driving, and hopes she can keep rolling.
“Having a car is just being independent,” she said. “I'm glad I can get in and go.”
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