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Van driver, 92, wasn't aware he'd hit someone

Valerie Austermann hasn't joined in the national debate about older drivers.

She can't.

On June 20, a month before a Santa Monica, Calif., crash killed 10 people, the 66-year-old Medford woman suffered life-threatening head injuries when she was struck by a van in the Bear Creek Plaza shopping center.

The driver was 92.

— Witnesses told Medford police that Charles B. Cook of Jacksonville pulled into the wrong lane of the parking lot near Value Village at about 12:30 that Friday afternoon.

They said he didn't notice when the right side of his Volkswagen Vanagon hit Austermann, whose head was struck twice by the van and then struck the asphalt.

They said he didn't respond to shouts to stop until passersby pounded on his windshield. Then, he started to back the van up, nearly striking Austermann again.

When officers examined Cook's van, they found a pair of vise grips affixed to the brake pedal, said Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston.

Mr. Cook told the officers that it helps his foot find the brake, Huddleston said.

Age was a factor in the accident, Huddleston said.

There was no reasonable explanation for him to have struck her.

Huddleston, who is a friend of Austermann and her husband, Kurt, referred the case to Josephine County District Attorney Clay Johnson.

After examining the evidence, Johnson declined to seek criminal charges of reckless driving and third-degree assault against Cook.

Reckless conduct requires an awareness of risk and a conscious disregarding of it, explained Mike Newman, Johnson's deputy district attorney.

(Cook) wasn't aware of the risk. He was trying to be safe, trying to avoid the risk. If he were to go out and do it again, that would be reckless.

Instead, Cook received a traffic citation for careless driving from the Medford Police Department. The infraction carries a &

36;419 fine.

In addition, police reported the incident to the state Driver and Motor Vehicle Services department. As of Thursday, however, Cook retained a valid license, a DMV official said.

Reached by phone at his Jacksonville home, Cook acknowledged the accident.

I hit a lady. I bumped her, he said. I'm not going to drive anymore. I'm quitting.

But Cook, who said he couldn't hear clearly, quickly handed the telephone to his 70-year-old son-in-law.

On his behalf, I'd like to say that mentally and physically, he's very capable, said Duane Gleaves of Medford. He doesn't smoke or drink or drive down the road using a cell phone.

Cook holds a clean driving record first established in 1939, said David House, spokesman for the DMV. He spent decades as a professional driver, Gleaves said, piloting Greyhound buses and school buses, long-haul trucks and automobile dealership vehicles.

It was unfortunate that there was an accident there in the parking lot, Gleaves said. It could have happened to anyone. Of course he feels bad about it.

Gleaves said he didn't know why Cook had vise grips on the brake pedal. Cook, who has a DMV-approved disabled parking placard, suffers from diabetes, but he had recently begun to feel better.

He realizes that he is not going to drive again, Gleaves said.

That's little comfort to Kurt Austermann, who has spent six weeks watching over his wife of 42 years. After weeks in the hospital, she is now recuperating at a local nursing home.

Valerie Austermann had just left her job as a water aerobics instructor at the Medford YMCA to run an errand when the accident happened, he said.

Her head injuries were extensive, requiring three hours of neurosurgery to reconnect a piece of skull and to reattach her scalp. Brain swelling hasn't yet abated fully, making a prognosis difficult.

The neurosurgeon is not really committing himself to what extent Val will recover, Kurt Austermann said.

For now, she's regaining bodily movements and learning to speak.

She knows who I am and she recognizes friends and family, but she's not always coming up with the word she wants, he said.

Kurt Austermann, a former spokesman for the local Bureau of Land Management office, has been juggling appointments with doctors and insurance agents ' and lawyers.

He won't say whether family members will file a civil lawsuit against Cook.

My primary concern is to get Val home, Austermann said.

In the six weeks since his wife's accident, however, Austermann said he has watched, horrified, as accidents involving older drivers unfold across the nation.

I'm appalled, he said.

Stricter standards and more rigorous tests for older drivers seem like obvious goals to Austermann.

Failing that, family members have to take responsibility for their elders, he said.

He and his brothers were prepared to do just that if Austermann's elderly parents insisted on getting behind the wheel.

Fortunately, they stopped driving willingly.

At some point you have to take away the mechanism for driving, Austermann said. The path was unpleasant, but we were prepared to do it. Just take away the keys and say, 'No more.'

Signs of unsafe driving

Family members and caregivers are in the best position to observe signs of declining driving ability, state Driver and Motor Vehicle Services department officials say.

Following are potential signs of impaired driving:

Other drivers honking at the older driver in traffic.

Older driver moving into a wrong lane.

Older driver becomes easily lost or confused.

New dents or scratches on the driver's car.

Older driver drives at inappropriate speeds, too fast or too slow.

Older driver gets more traffic tickets or warnings.

Older driver experiences near miss accidents.

Source:

Kurt and Valerie Austermann?s lives changed dramatically on June 20, when Valerie was hit by a van driven by a 92-year-old man. She suffered life-threatening head injuries. She is still recovering in a nursing home.