Dolly Wagner barely bumped the girl’s bicycle with her car.
It wasn’t even enough to knock the 10-year-old to the ground. The girl later giggled about what had happened.
But that accident five years ago – the first in five decades of driving for Wagner – meant the end of her time behind the wheel.
Wagner, now 85, of Shartlesville had meant to back up her car, but instead shifted into drive, causing it to lurch forward onto a sidewalk.
When she told the story to her children, they said she needed to stop driving. She reluctantly agreed.
“My eyes were getting weaker,” Wagner said.
So she handed over her license to her son and never drove again.
Wagner now uses public buses to get around Berks County. Though she enjoys talking with the driver and fellow riders, she’s still struggling to accept that she can no longer go where she wants, when she wants, and has to rely on others.
“My car was my everything,” she said. “Driving was my salvation. I miss it so much.”
Many seniors reach the point Wagner did, with their vision and reflexes in decline, their reaction times and overall health slipping. They worry about the day when it will no longer be safe for them to drive.
As the baby boomer generation ages, there will be even more drivers in that position.
Currently there are 35 million drivers age 65 and older. By 2030 there will be 65 million, AAA predicts.
That’s a concern because drivers 75 years and older have the second-highest rate of involvement in fatal crashes, trailing only teenagers, AAA reports.
So it’s crucial to keep those older drivers operating vehicles as safely as possible, not only for their well-being, but for the safety of others on the road, according to a recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The report’s five-year safety plan recommends changes in vehicle technology, data collection and driver behavior. It will be up to individual states to determine whether to adopt recommended changes.
PennDOT is reviewing the report before deciding whether to act on it, said its spokesman Craig Yetter.
Balancing safety, independence
Pennsylvania already has numerous programs and requirements to help ensure seniors are driving safely, such as requiring physicians to report any person they diagnose with medical conditions that could impair their ability to drive.
The key, said Yetter, is to balance the safety on Pennsylvania’s roads with the importance of helping older drivers to hold on to their independence and mobility by driving.
“Many older people are capable (of driving) and have a lifetime of valuable driving experience behind them to draw upon,” he said. “If we can add a restriction for glasses or some piece of adaptive equipment that will help them with the driving task, we look for a way to do that.”
Ed Gouker, who trains teachers in the AAA driver improvement program, said there are several things seniors should do to ensure they’re driving safely:
They should have their eyes checked yearly, get regular physical checkups and make sure their medications don’t impede their driving.
They should evaluate their driving ability, such as keeping track of whether drivers are blowing horns at them more often or whether there are recent scratches and dents on their vehicles they don’t remember getting.
They should take advantage of the CarFit program offered by AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association, which educates older adults on how well their vehicles are suited to them and if they’re fully using vehicles’ safety features.
And they should take safe-driving courses, not just for the possible insurance rate reductions, but to make sure their driving knowledge is up to date.
In addition, loved ones of older drivers should sometimes ride with them and stay alert to signs that they’re no longer driving safely, Gouker said.
A question of testing
Barbara Conrad, who has worked as a local paramedic, EMT and safe-driving instructor, said crashes are especially bad for seniors because their bodies are less able to handle the trauma. They take longer to heal and are more likely to die of their injuries, she said.
Conrad thinks the state should make older drivers retake their license tests periodically to ensure they’re still fit to drive.
“I don’t think they should test solely on age,” he said. “Driving is not a matter of age, but of ability. A 35-year old could be less safe than a 90-year-old.”
Some seniors at the Berks Encore senior center in Hamburg, though, said they think older drivers should be retested.
Among them was Fred Hand, 76, of Fogelsville, Lehigh County, who described himself as “the one you pass on I-78 when you’re driving 65 miles an hour.”
Hand thinks he’s still a safe driver, but acknowledges that his vision and reflexes aren’t what they used to be.
Like many seniors he’s adjusted his habits, now driving at or below the speed limit. He is no longer driving his grandchildren in bad weather or at night.
He’d be fine with a requirement to retake his license test because he wouldn’t want to drive if he were no longer able to do so safely.
“It would make me feel more comfortable,” he said.
Making good choices
Marilyn Quinter, 79, of Tilden Township, is another senior who has cut back on her driving as she’s aged. She no longer drives after dark, leaving the nighttime driving to her friend Bill Boyer, 77, a former truck driver with whom she lives.
That’s a smart move, said Gouker, and one that many seniors are making, driving only when and where they feel comfortable.
When asked what the government could do to make driving safer for seniors, visitors to the Hamburg senior center agreed on two answers:
High-intensity headlights that make it hard for oncoming motorists to see should be outlawed, and there should be a crackdown on the growing number of aggressive drivers who make it difficult on those trying to obey the speed limit.
Other seniors in Berks said they don’t want Pennsylvania to raise the speed limit to 70 mph on some highways. A change in state law gives PennDOT the ability to raise speed limits to 70 mph, and the agency expects some interstates will have the higher speed limit this summer.
Traffic already moves too quickly, said Richard Benner, 74, of Hamburg.
“If you go 65, they pass you like you’re sitting still,” he said.
Sylvia Boronski, 64, of Shillington said she’s a better driver than she was as a young woman because she’s more aware of how precious life is and how easily a crash can happen.
But she does know of other seniors whose driving experience makes them overconfident about their skills, and who aren’t as focused as they should be when behind the wheel.
She thinks the state should require seniors to take a mature-driver course, as she recently took through AAA.
“There are more and more older drivers on the road,” he said. “They should do whatever they can to stay safe.”
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