Published in Pawtucket Times, April 12, 2013
On May 2, 2003, Rhode Island State Rep. Mabel Anderson was looking to buy her husband George a surprise birthday present from one of his favorite stores, Home Depot. As she was walking and pushing a shopping carriage near the front entrance of the huge box store located in the Bristol Place Shopping Center in South Attleboro, Massachusetts, an 86-year old driver getting ready to exit his parking space, accidently shifted his vehicle into ‘reverse’ rather than ‘drive,’ stepped on the gas peddle. This jolted the vehicle in the wrong direction, running over Anderson. She was transported to the nearby hospital, where hours later, she would be pronounced dead. Anderson’s tragic death almost a decade ago continues to be played out today in communities across the nation.
Aging baby boomers, coping with a decline in their driving skills because of the aging process, keep driving well into their twilight years, when for safety’s sake, they should just retire the keys.
Driving Skills Decline in Later Years
According to the National Highway Safety Administration, in 2010, older individuals made up 17 percent of all traffic accidents and 8 percent of all people injured in crashes during that year. Compared to 2009, fatalities among this age group increased by 3 percent, 1 percent for these older persons being injured.
Meanwhile, John Paul, Manager of Public Affairs and Traffic Safety at AAA Southern New England, details research findings indicating that driving can be dangerous in your very later years. The report released by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, found the rate of deaths involving drivers 75 to 84 “is about three per million miles driven – on par with teen drivers,” says Paul. But, once they pass age 85, vehicular fatality rates jump to nearly four times that of teens, he says.
Older motorists lose their ability to drive when the aging process kicks in. For these individuals, driving skills lessen because of poor vision caused by cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration, compounded with poor hearing, lack of flexibility, limited range of motion and reduced reaction time make the complex tasks associated with driving more difficult. Oncoming cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and dementias, can also impact one’s ability to drive safely.
As older driver fatalities increase and the death toll tied to older-driver accidents skyrocket, a growing number of states are looking at licensing restrictions as a way to delicately approach this complicated issue.
Like many aging advocates, Gerry Levesque, AARP’s State Coordinator for Driver Safety Program, states that not all seniors are equally affected as they age. “One may lose the necessary skills needed to drive safely at age 60, while another will not lose those skills until 90”, states the 66-year-old Coventry resident.
“For older adults, losing driving privileges can be translated as a loss of independence,” notes Levesque. If this occurs, family or public transportation may not be available to replace the lack of transportation. “Older people may feel stranded or abandoned when they give up their keys,” says Levesque, noting that driving allows an older adult to pick up their prescriptions, shop for groceries or get out to socialize at the bridge club, bingo parlor or simply to be with family and friends.
“One thing that seniors have that the younger generation does not is a lifetime of driving. While they are losing physical abilities, they do have a wealth of experience from their years of driving,” adds Levesque.
Coping with an Aging Population that Drives
Over the years, states have grappled with the age-charged issue of restricting licenses of seniors not wishing to stir up their wrath. Aging advocates oppose any “blanket” solution to this problem that calls for licensing restrictions, rather it be made on a case-by-case basis. They say age should not be used as a “predictor” of unsafe driving.
In Rhode Island, the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) prorates its license renewal cycle for person’s age 71 and older. If you are 75 years of age or older, you license will be valid for two years. At license renewal time, the older person is required to pass a vision test or provide a valid medical examination certificate. A person’s physical or mental fitness to operate a motor vehicle is reviewed by DMV’s Medical Advisory Board whenever a case is brought to its attention by law enforcement, a physician or a family member.
With a growing aging population, Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation (RIDOT) has moved to tackle senior driving issues head-on. Two years ago, this state agency began to install a series of reflective markers or “roadside delineators” installed on the sides of roads as well as mounted on small posts and on top of concrete barriers. Especially geared for older drivers, these improvements were made to assist in making night-time driving easier and safer, while also aided driving during adverse weather
In addition to these improvements, RIDOT has installed cable guard rails along narrow medians on the Interstate where none previously existed. This safety feature significantly reduces the occurrence of head-on impacts with opposing traffic. State transportation officials have also made improvements to rural roads, by adding rumble strips, signing and roadside reflectors to help reduce road departure crashes.
Sharpening Your Driving Skills
AARP along with the AAA Southern New England recognized the thorny issues surrounding restrictive licensing and have developed special training courses to help older motorists freshen their skills to help them drive more safety, thus reducing the their risk of having their licenses revoked by state authorities.
AAA’s Senior Defense Driving Program (www.seniordriving.aaa.com) provides information about the aging process and its impact on a person’s ability to drive. The program gives tips on how a person can compensate for these changes and drive safer for a longer period of time. Additionally, a self-administered program, called “Roadwise Review” provides confidential and instant feedback on performance in key areas, allowing individuals to see how changing visual, mental and physical conditions do impact driving. In addition, the Auto Club’s “Roadwise RX” allows older drivers to look at the interaction between medications and driving.
AARP’s Safe Driving Program, (http://www.aarp.org/home-garden/transportation/driver_safety) the nation’s first and largest refresher course for drivers age 50 and older, has helped millions of drivers sharpen their driving skills. The four-hour program teaches defensive driving techniques, new traffic laws and rules of the road, as well as (and more importantly) how to adjust your driving style to those age-related changes to vision, hearing and reaction time. After successfully completing the Aging Group’s Safe Driving Program held in Rhode Island, the attendee is awarded a certificate of completion. The state mandates that the insurance carrier give a discount on their liability coverage to the policy holder with this certificate.
Surrendering the Keys
Ultimately, the burden may well fall on the family or the older motorist’s physician who must take the keys away from the driving-challenged senior for not only the driver’s safety, but for the safety of those sharing the road as well.
In the late 1990s my mother began exhibiting signs of dementia, and yet my father could not stop my mother from driving. The only solution appeared to come from making a call to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TDMV) for help.
Several times mother got lost driving around our neighborhood, a once familiar area for her, ultimately ending up on the dangerous LBJ Freeway, miles from home and confused. With her driving skills rapidly deteriorating, my siblings took on the task of making that hard decision of taking the car keys away from her. After several meetings with TDMV officials, the agency finally took away her driver’s license.
As difficult as this decision was for my family to make, ultimately for my mother who was in the mid-to-late stages of dementia, did not realize that she had lost her driving privileges and her precious keys.
Kristi Grigsby, Vice President of Content of AgingCare.com, agrees that taking the keys away from an elderly parent is one of the most difficult decisions that family caregivers must make. “The loss of independence can be traumatic for a senior,” she says, noting that some elderly parents can accept the life-altering change; others understandably can not.
Grigsby warns that the consequences of doing nothing far outweigh the wrath of an angry parent. “Stories of tragedies that could have been avoided had those keys been taken away are sometimes all the inspiration needed to stand firm and make a painful decision with confidence,” she says.
For more information about taking the keys away from an elderly parent go to http://www.agingcare.com/Articles/Taking-the-Keys-What-To-Do-If-Mom-or-Dad-Won-t-Give-Them-Up-112307.htm. Information on this web site, AgingCare.com,
connects people caring for their elderly parents with experts on aging issues and caregivers who visit this site help family members make the best care decisions for older loved ones.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.