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Focusing on Older Driver Safety Can Benefit Us All

The ranks of older Americans will grow by 60% by 2025. A new report finds that roadway and vehicle safety improvements will not only help them, but teens and all drivers.

I decided to skip town last weekend and visit my parents in Hershey, something I seldom get to do. I had a terrific time, but the two-day getaway meant no time to write or post my weekly blog. (I typically address this task on Sunday.) Now I’m not only feeling guilty, but struggling with what to write about since a lot of interesting topics have come across my desk in the past week.

After spending the weekend with my dad and mom (who are  75 and 74 years young, respectively), I feel compelled to comment on the “old driver” report just released by TRIP.  The Washington, D.C.-based transportation research group points out that although older Americans will be more mobile and active than any previous generation, they’ll face a transportation system that’s inadequate to offer the mobility and safety demanded by older Americans and the population in general.

The report notes that despite older motorists’ efforts to modify their driving, they’re disproportionately represented in fatal motor vehicle crashes. (Teens still have the highest crash risk of any age group on the road, but older drivers are more likely to be killed in motor vehicle crashes due to frailty issues.) In 2010, there were 5,750 fatalities in crashes involving at least one driver who was 65 years of age. And although drivers 65 and older account for 8% of all miles driven, they comprise 17% of all traffic fatalities. Data for each state is included in the report’s appendix. New Jersey ranks tenth in the nation in the number of licensed drivers 65 and older (just over 1 million), and 19th in fatalities where a crash involved a driver 65 or older (119) and in actual older driver deaths (67).

The report also offers a set of recommendations to improve the mobility and safety of older Americans. Since they focus on helping to reduce the consequences of driver error, all roadway users (and teens in particular) would benefit. They include improving the visibility of signage through the use of larger, clearer and brighter lettering; widening or adding left-turn lanes and extending the length of merge (failure to merge is a common cause of teen driving crashes in New Jersey) or exit lanes; and adding rumble strips (run off the road crashes also plague teens).

Ongoing education and training (every driver could benefit from a refresher, particularly if the last time you received training was in high school drivers ed) as well as evaluation and monitoring of “at risk” older drivers is also recommended in the report. New Jersey doesn’t require driver license retesting based on age, but it does have a medical review process in place to address those conditions (i.e., visual impairment, confusion, disorientation, memory, Alzheimer, seizures, sleep disorders) which could impact driver safety. Additionally, physicians and emergency rooms are required to report patients to the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission if they suffer seizures, loss of motor coordination or other impairments that could prove dangerous when they’re behind the wheel.

The TRIP report also calls for continued improvements in vehicle safety (again something that teens and all drivers will benefit from), greater access to transit and other transportation options. The latter is particularly important for ensuring that older drivers have the ability to remain mobile and connected after they give up the keys.

That brings me back to my parents. While both are still driving and doing so safely, my mom prefers not to drive at night and flatly refuses to drive to New Jersey to visit unless my dad is behind the wheel. (Hmmm, is she insinuating that New Jersey is full of bad drivers?) I let them do the driving when I visit so that I can see how they’re doing. Additionally, I always make a point of walking around my parents’ vehicles (mom drives a  Buick, dad a pick-up) to check for dings or dents. Both practices are strongly recommended by occupational therapists who work with older and/or disabled drivers.

Several years ago, I participated in a CarFit training sponsored by AAA. Created by the American Society on Aging and developed in collaboration with AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association, the program is designed to help older drivers find out how well they currently fit in their personal vehicle. It also highlights actions they can take to improve their fit and promotes  conversations about driver safety and mobility. Proper vehicle fit significantly impacts not only the driver’s safety (this applies to teens, too, who may be learning to drive in more than one car and/or sharing family vehicles once licensed), but the safety of everyone on the road.

I’m now leveraging that training to keep tabs not only on my parents, but my New Jersey-based in-laws. Plus as I age (yes, AARP has been pestering me about membership!), I’m now more aware of the importance of monitoring my own vision, cognition and motor function—all critical for safe driving.

As a member of the sandwich generation—I’ve still got a child in the house, plus two sets of aging parents—I recognize the responsibility I have in helping my novice driver (6 months before his road test) as well as the older drivers in my life stay safe on the road.

I encourage you, if you have older parents (65 plus) who drive, to partner with them to assess how they’re doing. Take the time now (don’t wait until their driving becomes a problem) to learn about the licensing requirements in the state where they live. And be sure to check out resources that are available, including alternate transportation systems, to help the older drivers in your family stay mobile as long as safely possible.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Brenda Kerwin March 08, 2012 at 05:41 PM
Unfortunately, many doctors are reluctant to offend or drive away a patient with whom they've had a long term relationship even though they might be the best "neutral party" to initiate the conversation. I had an older relative who experienced a complete loss of vision in her left eye due to macular degeneration. The family convinced her it was time to stop driving. Her eye doctor asked her a few months later why she had decided to stop and expressed surprise that she didn't think she was able to continue to do so.
Pam Fischer March 08, 2012 at 06:44 PM
This is a difficult issue, but I want to stress that there are resources to assist doctors in working with their older patients. For example, AMA worked with NHTSA to develop the Physicians Guide to Assessing & Counseling Older Drivers (http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/public-health/promoting-healthy-lifestyles/geriatric-health/older-driver-safety.page). AAA, meanwhile, worked with NHTSA to create a web-based education course -- Medical Fitness to Drive: Is Your Patient at Risk -- for physicians (http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/public-health/promoting-healthy-lifestyles/geriatric-health/older-driver-safety.page). AAA also has a very good website -- www.seniordrivers.org -- that's filled with information to help older drivers and their family members. AAA also developed "Roadwise Review: A Tool to Help Seniors Drive Safely Longer," software older adults can use to test their own performance at home on measures of functional ability validated as predictors of at-fault crashes. The easy to use program (I've used it a number of times) provides personalized feedback based on results, and how to seek additional help.
Michael Bush March 08, 2012 at 08:59 PM
Pam, Thank you for those resources. Glad to see AAA getting ahead of this, and trying to supply helpful information for this issue. .
Pam Fischer March 08, 2012 at 10:03 PM
Both AAA and the AAA Foundation for Safety have been leading the effort to address this issue for nearly two decades. Their focus is on helping older folks stay mobile as long as safely possible.
Lela Manning June 25, 2012 at 05:26 PM
Actually, AMA, not AAA, worked with NHTSA to create a web-based education course -- Medical Fitness to Drive: Is Your Patient at Risk -- for physicians (http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/public-health/promoting-healthy-lifestyles/geriatric-health/older-driver-safety.page).

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