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When is it time for seniors to stop driving?

Seniors face additional challenges while driving, but there are steps they can take to remain safe.

Posted: March 10, 2008 5:51 p.m.
Updated: May 11, 2008 5:03 a.m.
 

Driving can be treacherous under the best of circumstances, but as we age it can become even more so, as our senses decline and our reaction times slow down.

Statistics show that the total number of accidents involving seniors is lower than for other age groups, but the number of accidents per mile driven is actually higher. And when collisions happen, 60 percent can be attributed to failure to yield right-of-way or while making a left turn, 15 percent to unsafe lane changes, and 10 percent to failure to stop at red lights or stop signs.

Senior citizens face distinct challenges as drivers, and as a consequence they may have to make certain adjustments and changes to ensure their safety and the safety of others while on the road. They may also need to place limitations on their driving, and may even face some tough decisions - such as when is it time to stop driving completely?

Steps You Can Take
Glenn Grade, a Valencia resident who teaches an AARP-designed driving safety course at the Newhall senior center, says there are many steps that seniors can take to compensate for the decline in vision, hearing, and response times that are common with aging.

"Staying far enough behind the car in front of you is crucial," said Grade, who shares teaching duties with James Gjniak and Roger Oleson.

"You need at least a three-second gap between your car and the next, and even more when there is ice, snow, or fog."

Grade said that if you are over 55 an annual physical exam is recommended to determine if you are suffering from a significant degree of hearing or vision loss. If you are, it is vital to take counter-measures.

"Get proper glasses or sunglasses to combat glare, make sure that noise is at a minimum in the car and that your window is open a crack so that you can hear emergency vehicles," he said.

Medications
Many seniors take one or more medicines for medical conditions, which can sometimes interfere with vision or cause drowsiness. Grade said that everyone should learn the side effects of their medications, and check to make sure they don't interact badly with each other.

"Seniors do not recover as quickly from the effects of medication," Grade said. "When in doubt about a medicine, don't drive. Have someone else drive you. Wait and see what effect the drug has on you before you get in the car."

Fatigue is another issue to be aware of. Many older people get tired more easily and their endurance for driving long distances is not what it used to be.

"Don't be a hero," Grade urges. "If you know you're tired and not alert, pull over and rest or let someone else drive. There's nothing heroic about trying to drive 700 miles in a day if it means endangering people."
Though some people's pride may get in the way of taking a hard look at their own driving skills, Grade says that safety is more important than self-consciousness.

"There are lives at stake here," he said. "Not only could you hurt yourself, but if you are the one to cause an accident, you wouldn't be able to live with that."

Refresher Course
If you have had a series of near-misses on the road, or if other people who ride with you regularly have expressed concern about your driving, it may be time to either take a refresher course, or possibly stop driving entirely.

"If you don't always look over your shoulder before you change lanes, you are an accident waiting to happen," said Grade. "If people keep honking at you, or you keep hitting the curb, maybe you should look for professional help with analysis of your driving."

The AARP course Grade teaches can be a starting point. The class, which can be taken either as a one-day, eight-hour session or two days of four hours each, costs only $10 and covers road rules, ways to compensate for declining senses, and courtesy and cooperation on the road.

"People are living longer and driving longer," said Charee Gillins, spokeswoman for the Pasadena office of the AARP. "As a result, they need to learn to make the necessary adjustments."

An added benefit of the course, which over 10 million people have taken since 1979, is the insurance discount it will get you upon successful completion.

Another option is to have a professional driving instructor or other adult ride along with you while you drive and evaluate your skills in order to find weak areas and come up with strategies to fix them.

Alternatives
If you have reached an age where your senses have declined to the point where it is no longer safe to drive, there are benefits that balance out the perceived negatives such as loss of independence and mobility.

"The cost of running an automobile is huge," said Grade. "You can save a lot of money by using alternative transportation options like family and friends, buses, or the senior Dial-A-Ride." Grade added that seniors should not let their fear of being a burden or being house-bound outweigh the real dangers of driving with impaired abilities.

On the flip side of that coin, if you are a relative of an older driver whom you feel should no longer be on the road, there are certain measures you can take.

Having a serious conversation about your concerns with your loved one is a starting place. The Hartford company offers an excellent brochure which outlines the correct time, place, and person to initiate this conversation in order to get maximum results.

In a worst-case scenario, if the person refuses to stop driving, they can be anonymously reported to the DMV. The DMV will call that person in for a test, and if they fail, their driving privileges can be taken away.

For information about the Driver Safety Training course at the Senior Center, call (661) 259-9444. To get a free copy of The Hartford company booklet on talking to older drivers, go to www.thehartford.com/talkwitholderdrivers, or write to: The Hartford, We Need To Talk, 200 Executive Blvd., Southington, CT 06489.

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