June 5, 2013 10:00:51 AM
NGATAKI, New Zealand -- Bob Edwards was born before the first Model T rolled out of Henry Ford's factory in Detroit. He learned to drive in a French car that had a lever instead of a steering wheel. And he's still on the road, only now in a red four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi.
The oldest licensed driver in New Zealand, and one of the oldest in the world, has been driving for 88 of his 105 years and has no plans to give it up, just as he intends to keep working out every morning in his home gym, and to keep regularly cooking meals for himself and his wife, who's 91.
"In fact, I don't think I'm old," Edwards says. "Not really."
He's been involved in just one crash in his life and has gotten just one speeding ticket, a citation that still gets him riled up years later. When he broke his left hip three years ago, his doctors said to stop driving for six weeks but he didn't pay them much mind. After all, he says, he drives an automatic and only needs his right leg for that.
In New Zealand, drivers older than 80 must have their health and vision tested every two years to stay on the road. Many countries in Europe and U.S. states have similar requirements.
While stories about elderly drivers making mistakes or causing crashes often make headlines, it's young drivers who tend to cause the most damage.
"Older drivers, on a per-kilometer-driven basis, are involved in far fewer crashes than younger drivers," said Andy Knackstedt, a spokesman for the New Zealand Transport Agency, which oversees driver testing.
He said that for many elderly people, retaining a license helps them maintain their independence, mobility and dignity. "Our job is really to balance that with the need to make sure our roads are safe," he says.
According to Guinness World Records, the world's oldest driver was American Fred Hale Sr. who was on the road until his 108th birthday in 1998.
Edwards drives three times a week to the store 15 kilometers (9 miles) down the road. He picks up groceries on Sundays and the newspapers on other days. Occasionally, he says, he'll drive farther afield, to a medical appointment or to visit friends.
He grew up in England and he learned to drive in his uncle's car, a De Dion Bouton.
"It was something new. Cars were just coming in," Edwards says. "I mean, it was just marvelous."
He got his first license in 1925 at age 17. Two years later, he saw a Salvation Army ad seeking young men to work on the farms of England's colonies.
"They told me Canada was very cold, Australia was very hot, but New Zealand, they said, was just right," Edwards says. "So I picked New Zealand."
He eventually bought a Dodge car, converted it into a truck and started transporting the fossilized gum of native kauri trees from Snells Beach in the north to the city of Auckland. Soon he was working 16-hour days and transporting butter, groceries and gas; he bought new trucks and employed a couple of drivers.
Gas rationing during World War II effectively ended his business. For much of the rest of his working life, he captained tourist and car ferries, fibbing about his age so he could work beyond what was then the mandatory retirement age of 60.
His wife, Lesley, stopped driving about 30 years ago. Her husband always took the wheel, anyway, and he will stay with it as long as he can.
"As far as I'm concerned, driving is a part of me," he says. "I mean, that was me. I was a driver. And I could drive anything. Anything at all."