Safe driving programs can aid seniors

Catherine Sinclair-Williams is 78. She has no plans to give up driving anytime soon, thank you very much.

“I’m not considering retiring from that part of my life,” she said tartly. “I am more comfortable behind the wheel of my car than I am in my den.”

She has, however, made at least one concession to advancing age.

“I’ve found lately that I’ve developed glaucoma, so I have given up driving at night,” said Sinclair-Williams, who lives in the Long Island, N.Y., community of Elmont.

“The optometrist says if I’m away from home and it’s getting dark, I can drive back … but I’m not to leave home at night. So I guess that’s one thing I’ve done,” she acknowledged.

Sinclair-Williams said she has driven to North Carolina in recent years and may do it again this summer. “Eventually, I may have to give up driving,” she mused. “Then I might have to get a younger companion to take me places. That would be my ideal way to get around. Using the Long Island Railroad is easy and convenient, but the idea of getting on a bus terrifies me.”

Fortunately, she lives within several blocks of her beauty parlor, pharmacy and other shops. But no large grocery store is close by. For that, she might have to take a cab.

“And yes, I plan on staying healthy and living in my home for as long as I can,” she said.

Meanwhile, says the American Automobile Association’s Jack Nelson, Sinclair-Williams is an ideal candidate for AAA’s senior motoring efforts, which include everything from brochures with safe driv­ing tips to the proper sizing of vehicles to drivers — dubbed Car Fit — to a senior driving expo with numerous booths about driving and other programs for older adults. (AARP and other advocacy groups also offer senior driver safety programs.)

Nelson advises senior drivers who find they are getting honked at by other motorists, have experienced minor accidents, have trouble seeing after dusk or get lost in familiar places should participate in a screening program.

“These are reasons to dig a little deeper and perhaps see an occupational therapist for a formal evaluation,” he said. “Often, there are interventions available to keep you driving without the discomfort.”

Nelson noted that seniors also might want to avoid driving during high-volume periods.

“That can be stressful, so you might want to complete your activities of daily living, like running errands and that kind of thing when there are fewer drivers on the road,” he said.

Nelson said studies have shown that left hand turns can be especially problematic for older drivers.

“If you look at fatal crash data in which older drivers are over-represented, accidents that occur involving left-hand turns are most common,” he said. “That has a lot to do with reaction time and being able to perceive how fast an oncoming vehicle is approaching.

“Usually when a crash occurs at an intersection and someone is making a left-hand turn, it’s almost always at a non-signalized intersection or an intersection that doesn’t have a designated left-hand turn. Without those things, there is a lot of pressure from motorists behind you to go ahead and turn.”

But Nelson stressed that while older drivers are often over-represented in fatal crashes, it is often these motorists themselves and their equally old passengers who die — not other motorists.

“Seniors remain among the safest drivers on the road,” he said. “Even more so than folks in the 25- to 55-age group. It is teens who are still the most dangerous.”

Nelson said AAA’s Roadwise Review is a free online tool that helps seniors measure mental and physical abilities important for safe driving. In as little as 30 minutes, drivers can identify and get further guidance on their physical and mental skills that might need improvement.

“It’s is a great predictor of letting older folks know if they should contact a health care professional to get a more comprehensive and formal assessment of their safe driving skills important for safe driving,” he said.

Nelson said AAA is opposed to aged-based testing that would force older drivers who fail a test off the road.

“We support age-based screening once you hit, say, 75,” he said. “This wouldn’t affect your license, but would trigger additional assessment.

“Research tells us age-based licensing tests do not work and can be harmful. They can force people to stop driving before they need to. We don’t think it’s a bad thing to require people beyond a certain age to have vision screened for safe driving. And generally speaking, vision starts to decline around 40.

So obviously, by the time you are 75 or 85, your vision won’t be what it used to be.” Before seniors decide to hang up the car keys, Nelson suggests finding out what resources are available in their communities — so they can stay in their homes as long as they wish.

These could include public buses, taxis, paratransit offerings and supplemental transportation programs that — in best-case scenarios — might even include a driver who shows up at your door, waits while you shop and then helps you carry your bags into your home.

Usually a decision about ceasing to drive will involve many people, Nelson said.

“Often it is a spouse, a health care provider or adult children. It’s not an easy decision, but sometimes it’s the best option for the driver’s safety and others on the road.

“People now live seven to 10 years beyond their ability to drive safely,” he said. “That wasn’t always the case. But it’s a challenge that a lot of us will eventually have to face.

“Most of us take great care to plan for our financial retirement. But we should be planning for our retirement from driving, too.”

For more information on AAA’s senior driving programs, see www.seniordrivingAAA.com

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