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Centenarian at Wheel Still Rules the Road

September 01, 2002|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The way Charles Ford sees it, nothing is going to stop him from driving his brand new Chevy Cavalier. So what if gas prices are high? So what if he has more traffic tickets than he can remember? So what if he's 102?

He's still got a good eye for the road; he swears by it. After all, he has been driving since Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, back when some people were still getting around by mule.

The latest ticket wasn't so hard to explain. He had a bridge game to get to and didn't have time to wait for a traffic jam to clear. He thought he'd drive down the other side of the road, far enough to make a turn. But as soon as the lights flashed behind him, Ford knew he was in trouble.

"Whenever I know I done something wrong, I don't put no squawk with the police," he said, accepting the yellow slip that would cost him $170. "I knew better."

With his cane in one hand and his car keys in the other, Ford is among 58 centenarians licensed to drive on California's streets. There are 37 drivers who are 100 years old, 15 who are 101, three who are 102, one who is 103 and two who have celebrated their 104th birthdays.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles doesn't disqualify elderly drivers from obtaining licenses, but it does require those older than 70 to renew them in person. Across the country, 19 states require older drivers--typically older than 65 or 70--to renew their licenses in person, to renew them more often or to pass road and vision tests, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Drivers older than 65 have very low accident rates and are not threats to others on the road, according to a study by the institute. But when they do get into accidents, they are more easily hurt and less likely to survive their injuries, the study said. The death rates for drivers 75 to 79 years old are more than four times as high as those for 30-to 59-year-olds.

Of course, not everyone trusts someone who has been behind the wheel since before most roads were built. Ford's friend from the senior citizens center, Mignon Benjamin, said many old drivers grip the steering wheel and never go above 20 mph. But not her friend, she says with a chuckle.

"Here comes Mr. Ford! Get out of his way!" said Benjamin, 73. "I wouldn't ride with him for my life. He drives too fast."

Ford passed a written exam this year to renew his California driver's license for five more years. And a few months ago, he traded in a 1981 Malibu station wagon and bought the 2002 gold Cavalier.

"I've always been a lover of beautiful women and beautiful cars," he said. "That's why I don't have any money today."

Sitting on a recliner in the living room of his home south of downtown, Ford keeps the door open to stay cool on a hot Los Angeles summer day. A vase of blue carnations is on a counter, next to a plastic crown he received on his 100th birthday.

Ford has a wide smile and a clean shave, and his suspenders and hat lie nearby on a mustard-colored couch, where he left them after a headache caused him to cancel a bridge game with his brother.

Ford remembers the day he learned to drive as if it were yesterday. It was 1918 and he was living in a rural Mississippi town. The country was at war and a sawmill was being built nearby to make wood spokes and rims for military vehicles.

To Ford, the sawmill meant steady work because drivers would be needed to haul logs. So when a neighbor was driving to a town 20 miles away and offered him a ride, Ford jumped in and carefully watched every move the driver made. About six miles from home, he took the wheel. Soon afterward, Ford got the job.

"You didn't have to have a license, but you had to prove you could drive," he said.

During the Depression, Ford and his wife, Emma, hitched a ride to Los Angeles. His wife got a job as a mother's helper, while he began cleaning and doing yardwork. Together, they made $45 a month.

Later, he donned a cap and a uniform and became a chauffeur for a Beverly Hills tailor, he said, delivering clothes to Clark Gable and Edward G. Robinson, among others.

In 1932, Ford finally scraped up enough money for a car.

He paid about $30 for a black Ford roadster with a rumble seat, shiny red wheels and fenders with lights.

"It was a beautiful thing," he said, shaking his head. "It was a sports car."

Driving his very own wheels, Ford said, he felt like a rich man. He didn't have to worry about taking the 5-cent streetcar anymore. It was the year of Ford's first--he insists only--accident: Another motorist ran into him.

Traffic tickets have been another story.

After Ford was cited for driving on the wrong side of the street in February, he registered for traffic school to save money on his insurance.

Back at the Inglewood courthouse, the Traffic Division clerks were having trouble entering Ford's ticket information in the computer.

His birth date is 10-2-99 and the computer kept processing it as if he were 2 years old, said La Taunya Green, assistant supervisor of the Inglewood Traffic Division.

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