Aging drivers can reassess their changing abilities

October 12, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

Joe Ecker has been driving since he was 16.

He first drove a 1929 Ford. "You could get them in any color you wanted - as long as it was black," he says.

Now Ecker, 81, drives a 1989 Chevrolet Corsair. Red.

In June, the Hagerstown resident took the AARP Driver Safety class. The session was the second time he enrolled.

"Older people should be taking classes like this," he says.

Allen Swope is assistant state coordinator of the AARP Driver Safety Program. The program, formerly called 55 ALIVE Mature

Driving, has been offered locally since the 1970s. There are four local instructors - all volunteers.

"I couldn't say no," Swope says.

Swope, who was a state trooper in Maryland for 33 years, says drivers of any age can benefit from the program.


The Driver Safety course, usually held in two four-hour sessions, includes a lot of self-assessment, Swope says. Age-related changes can lead to changes in driving abilities. Vision, hearing, perception, the ability to concentrate and motor skills can decline with age. Medications and interactions with alcohol or even over-the-counter medications can affect abilities.

AARP Driver Safety students are encouraged to ask hard questions and test themselves on reaction time and flexibility with exercises. The course points out potential trouble spots and situations - intersections, shopping centers, backing up, blind spots, weather.

People are living longer; more people are driving.

One of 15 licensed drivers was older than 70 in 1983. By 1995, the number had increased to one out of 11. By 2020, one out of five Americans will be older than 65, and most of them will probably be licensed to drive, according to National Institute on Aging estimates.

Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, says her organization got a lot of phone calls in July after an 86-year-old man drove his car through a crowded farmers market in Santa Monica, Calif.

That headline-grabbing incident thankfully is not something that happens every day. But the horrific accident drew national attention to the question of older driver safety.

Older drivers are among the country's safest drivers - fewer speeders or drivers under the influence of alcohol among them - according to the National Institute on Aging. However, people older than 70 are more likely to be involved in a crash while driving and are more likely to die in the crash.

In the last five years, improvements that can help elderly drivers have been made in highway signage and lighting, Harsha says. But there has not been much advancement in assessment.

Although there are a number of tools in development, nobody yet has a state-administered tool to assess the driving skills of older drivers, Harsha says.

She worries about her parents - both in their 80s - and says she doesn't know how to broach the subject of them giving up driving.

The subject is sensitive. Driving equals independence, and giving up a driver's license can mean lack of mobility and needing to depend on others.

"It takes a delicate approach," Swope says.

There are signs that bring focus to the question of whether or not a person should continue to drive. Swope provides a checklist: Is the person experiencing memory loss or an inability to perform routine tasks? Is reaction time slowed, concentration diminished? Does the person drive at inappropriate speeds and not observe traffic signs?

"Would you allow your grandchildren to ride with you," is a good question to ask of the driver you're worried about, Swope says.

He recommends that concerned family members try to get a friend or other independent source to ride with the elderly driver to see how he or she drives and to talk about alternatives.

Family health-care providers can help by assessing abilities and talking to the person. The American Medical Association encourages physicians to use its Physician's Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers as an educational tool to assist them in helping their patients.

Many older drivers realize when it's time to stop driving and "outright accept" the decision, Swope says.

Refusal is rare, but, if necessary, family members, physicians and law enforcement officials can contact the motor vehicle agency, which can require that the driver be assessed.

Ecker, who stopped driving for a while after cataract surgery, is on the road again.

"You can give it up," he says, and there will be some money-saving benefits - including no car or insurance payments.

Refresher course

Allen Swope, assistant state coordinator of the AARP Driver Safety Program, says four local sessions of the course will be held before the December holidays. The class costs $10.

For information, call Judy Brewer at Washington County Commission on Aging, 301-790-0275.

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