Journalism Next: April 7, 2014

Special to the HeraldApril 7, 2014 

BRADENTON -- The March 8 passing of junior Hugo Arellano was all too early and set dark clouds over Manatee High School as students mourned the loss of their friend.

The next school day, a moment of silence was taken right after the Pledge of Allegiance in remembrance of Arellano.

Peers described him as charismatic and kind. His largest focus was the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

"I've been telling the other cadets that he left because he was meant to be our guardian angel," said senior Battalion Commander Alex LaDue.

Arellano was heading east on Cortez Road around 4:20 p.m. when a 2012 Buick LaCrosse failed to yield the right-of-way and struck the right side of Arellano's motorcycle. The 18-year-old Arellano was wearing a helmet.

The driver of the Buick LaCrosse was 90 years old and suffered minor injuries while another passenger was uninjured.

"The reaction was immediate. Everyone called everyone to inform because we really are just one big family. I can not tell you how many

tears were shed those first hours," said senior second Lt. Noell Niemann.

Along with the feelings of shock and loss, students and faculty alike expressed extreme disappointment in the way the state of Florida licenses elderly drivers.

"Even before last weekend's tragedy, we have all heard stories -- in the media and in our own lives -- of problems with elderly drivers, especially those over 80," said economics teacher Charles Kennedy.

Kennedy decided to act.

He began a petition on change.org to protect public safety by mandating annual testing for drivers over 80 years old. Whenever the petition is signed, a copy is immediately sent to our district's state Rep. Jim Boyd, state Sen. Bill Galvano and the leadership of the Florida House and Senate.

Florida has the highest senior citizen population, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety reports the frequency of accidents for older drivers begins to increase slightly at age 65. At age 80 there is a sharp increase.

The online petition is sparking controversy.

"His girlfriend and brother are in full support," Niemann said.

But critics question how the elderly would get to doctor's appointments, grocery stores and other errands if they failed their driving test. They say this strips them of their mobility.

But petitioners say it is not worth having a dangerous driver on the road for a simple errand -- especially if they fail the driving test.

Public transportation has greatly increased in the past decade, even stretching out into the more rural communities, proponents of the tougher laws say.

"When the operation of a motor vehicle becomes a threat to public safety, the Florida Legislature must step in and create rules for the protection of all Florida residents and visitors," Kennedy said.

As of now, 33 states have laws regarding older drivers -- including Florida. However, Florida only requires a driver over 80 to be retested every six years.

The IIHS notes specific physical, cognitive and visual abilities decline as age increases. In addition, many elderly drivers take medications that may hinder their ability to drive safely.

"I think the petition is long overdue. I am happy something is finally being done because Hugo was too young for this. He didn't deserve to end this way," Niemann said.

Out of the tragic death, the online petition may help Florida roads become safer. Until then, Hurricanes will continue to mourn the passing of Hugo Arellano.

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