A visit to the driving range

A Visit to the Driving Range
Questions of age and automobiles  

By Kevin Morley

The topic of senior citizen driving is a sensitive one.

seniordriving_300We all know seniors. Perhaps we are one.

If we’re not, most of us fervently hope to become one.

And more of us will be seniors as the Baby Boomers finally reach their golden ages.

But what exactly is a senior?

Several levels in the senior class

The Barnstable County Department of Human Services  slices the senior population in the following way:

  • The senior/elder population includes people age 55 and older.
  • Within that broad range there are “pre-retirement-age seniors” who are between 55 and 64 years old. 
  • Next we have “older adults” -- persons age 65 and older. 
  • Within that group there are “younger-age seniors” from 65 to 74 followed by “older-age seniors” at 75 to 84 years of age. 
  • At the top of the scale are “The Oldest Old,” persons age 85 years and older.

So when you talk about senior drivers you could be talking about someone 55 or someone well over 85.

The Dennis Police Department in partnership with AAA will hold a Senior Driving Safety presentation on January 23, 2008 at 10 a.m. at the new Dennis Police Facility at 90 Bob Crowell Road, South Dennis, MA. The class is open to the public and is free of charge. Please contact Officer James Sullivan or Officer Kathleen Mei at 508-394-1313 if you have any questions. According to Warren Smith, a Barnstable County Human Services department data analyst, the Cape’s senior driving population includes:

  • 45,000 drivers between the ages of 65 and 74
  • 5,800 between 75 and 84
  • 2,500 drivers 85 and over

And those numbers will keep going up thanks to, yes, the Baby Boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964.

Nowhere but up – a “perfect storm” of senior drivers

Based on the latest census figures, there are around 59,000 “Boomers” living on Cape. The ladies outnumber the gents by 31,000 to 28,000.

Every day, eight Boomers turn 60 on the Cape. That’s a birthday party every three hours.

Baby Boomers plus the seniors comprise 55 percent of the Cape’s population.

By 2015 there could be around 132,000 folks over the age of 55. The total Cape population was estimated to be 224,816 in 2006. In seven years we could be facing a “perfect storm” of senior drivers.

Safe, but then again, no

By 2015 there could be around 132,000 folks over the age of 55. The total Cape population was estimated to be 224,816 in 2006. In seven years we could be facing a “perfect storm” of senior drivers. The critical topic in the discussion of senior driving is the balance between the freedom to drive one’s personal automobile and the requirements of personal and public safety. Senior drivers are at one and the same time the safest drivers and the drivers most at risk on our roadways.

The AARP reports that, as a group, older drivers are relatively safe drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety states that older drivers generally have the lowest crash rates. But they have higher fatality rates than younger drivers.

National studies indicate that medical conditions, medication usage and reduced physical function can increase the risk of accidents and injury among older adults.

After age 75, the risk of being involved in a collision increases for every mile driven. The rate of risk for adults over age 75 is nearly equal to the risk of younger drivers age 16 to 24.

The rate of fatalities increases slightly after age 65 and significantly after age 75. The older body just can’t withstand the physical trauma inflicted in a crash as well as a younger one.

Testing

Every year stories of senior drivers mistaking the accelerator for the brake hit the front page. Sometimes the results are just embarrassing. Other times they are tragic beyond words. Whenever such an incident occurs there is an outcry to get the old people off the road.

In 2007, Massachusetts Sen. Brian A. Joyce (D-Milton)  proposed legislation in Senate Bill 2065 – “An Act to Promote Safe Driving” -- that would require drivers over age 85 to pass a vision test and a road test every five years.

Current law requires only a vision test for those renewing their license every ten years, meaning that an 85-year-old driver can renew his or her license without further testing until age 95, at which time the driver would only have to pass a simple vision test and could continue driving until they were 105. The bill was referred to the Joint Committee on Transportation at an October 11, 2007. As of January 17, 2008, it had not yet been reported out.

“You want to make sure that you have an exit strategy. We try to tell people that many car crashes are not accidents – they happen because you are hanging in the blind spot of the vehicle in front of you. Slow down and back off.” John Paul, AAA Traffic Safety Manager Senator Joyce says, “85 is not an arbitrary age. It is statistically significant according to a variety of different sources. The Center for the Study and Improvement of Regulation at Carnegie Mellon University found that the mile-for-mile fatality rate is about three times higher for drivers 85 and older on weekdays than it is for teenagers. It is also about three times higher than the fatality rate for drivers between the ages of 75 and 84. For 16 to 20 year olds, there are 3.03 fatalities for every 100 million miles driven. This number drops off for drivers between the ages of 21 and 74, but drivers aged 75 to 84 have 3.1 fatalities per 100 million miles and drivers aged 85 and up have 11.47 fatalities per 100 million miles driven.”

The AARP opposed the bill, stating: “There is no silver bullet to identify unsafe drivers. However, AARP supports the efforts of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in identifying new, cost-efficient testing methods that will assess driving impairments, such as a diminished field of view or an inability to judge driving speed. In addition, we support the expansion of federal and state programs and the number of qualified professionals performing scientifically based driver assessment, rehabilitation and education.”

The Role of Education

For the Dennis Police Department, education plays a prominent role in its effort to make the local roads safer. To that end, the department, in partnership with the American Automobile Association (AAA) of Southern New England will be holding a Senior Driving Safety presentation on January 23, 2008 at 10 a.m. at the Dennis Police station at 90 Bob Crowell Road in South Dennis.

John Paul, Manager of Traffic Safety at AAA Southern New England, will present the sixty-minute program entitled “The Older and Wiser Driver.” He will share practical information on how seniors can compensate for the physical changes that affect their ability to drive.

Included in the presentation is a video that features seniors discussing their personal strategies to maintain good “driving health” as well as segments on vision, cognition, physical fitness, and the side effects of common medications on driving.

“This program is completely educational,” says John Paul. “We don’t want to take seniors off the road. We want to keep people driving as long as they can do so safely. In the program we look at the effects of age on driving and some of the things you can do to alleviate them.”

Paul has presented hundreds of these Senior Driving programs and reports that those who attend often remark that many of the tips they learn at the program are helpful. “People tell me things such as ‘I never quite knew about keeping an extra second between me and the car in front…I never think about the people beside me.’”

“As we get older we usually get safer. The most important risk assessment we can make, though, is knowing when to hang up the keys.” John Paul AAA’s Paul advises drivers to think about what is going to happen next. “You want to make sure that you have an exit strategy. We try to tell people that many car crashes are not accidents – they happen because you are hanging in the blind spot of the vehicle in front of you. Slow down and back off.” Other advice includes looking up and further down the road because, as people age, they tend to let their eyes settle on the road closer to the car.

Computer-based screening tool

AAA also offers a computer-based program called “Roadwise Review” described as a “tool to help seniors drive safely longer.” This is a scientifically validated screening tool developed by AAA and noted transportation safety researchers. Available on CD-ROM, it allows seniors to measure, in the privacy of their own home, the functional abilities shown to be the strongest predictors of crash risk among older drivers including:

  • Leg Strength
  • General Mobility
  • Head/Neck Flexibility
  • High- and Low-Contrast Visual Acuity
  • Working Memory
  • Visualization of Missing Information
  • Visual Search
  • Useful Field of View

John Paul tells the story of a call he received from a woman in her 60s whose mother was in her 80s. “They self-administered the program in private at the local senior center. The mother did better than the daughter. The older woman’s night vision wasn’t so good so she didn’t drive at night. But the younger woman had some cognitive problems caused by the medication she was taking. She went back to her doctor and had a medication change.” Paul compares the “Roadwise Review” to a blood pressure test that “you can take periodically to see how you are doing.”

Older Adult Mobility

Jim Wick of West Dennis has been driving since 1944. He frankly acknowledges the effects of aging on the ability to drive, eyesight being one of them. “Over a period of time your eyesight does deteriorate – particularly at night.  People have a tendency to continue driving when they shouldn’t.”  Wick recalls a couple in his neighborhood where each partner had one good eye -- the husband his left, the wife her right. They would drive to the transfer station with one keeping watch on the left and the other on the right. “We were aghast when we found out,” says Wick. “There were people who would have helped them but they didn’t ask.”

That brings up the subject of what the Beverly Foundation calls “older adult mobility.” How can people handle their daily needs without a car, especially in a place like Cape Cod with limited public transportation and relatively great distances from residential areas to stores and medical facilities? Jim Wick says, “don’t be afraid to ask if you need help.”

Churches, neighbors and public agencies can be of assistance. For instance, the Dennis Council on Aging offers transportation for medical trips provided by volunteer drivers. It also runs a Monday-through-Friday scheduled bus service for shopping and programs at the Center and town libraries.

Sensing, deciding, and acting

Dennis Police traffic safety officer Jim Sullivan says, “A typical driver makes 20 decisions per mile, with less than half a second to act to avoid a collision. Age affects all three steps in the process: sensing, deciding, and acting.”

John Paul of AAA states that the part of the human brain that assesses risk doesn’t fully develop until age 25. “As we get older we usually get safer. The most important risk assessment we can make, though, is knowing when to hang up the keys.”

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