Preparing to drive to her volunteer job at Opportunity House, 76-year-old Mary Stapleton looks confident as she slams the door to her condo, purse on her arm.
But the minute she steps into her green Ford Taurus, she joins millions of other drivers whose risk of being injured or killed in an auto crash is nearly as high as that of teenagers.
According to the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety’s study released earlier this year, drivers older than 70 are second only to 16- to 20-year-old drivers in fatality rates per miles driven. In 2000, they accounted for 6 percent of all the people injured in traffic crashes and 13 percent of all fatalities, yet they represented only 9 percent of the population.
That number promises to rise by leaps and bounds as the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that one in five drivers on the road in 2020 will be over age 65.
As states shy away from licensing requirements based solely on age, the burden falls to health professionals, law enforcement and advocates to devise ways to monitor and assist aging drivers – and perhaps even keep them off the roads.
Stapleton has never had an accident in her driving career and is making sure she doesn’t become a statistic. She’s taken driving courses, practices defensive driving as she watches other cars and pedestrians, and chooses her travel times and routes to avoid traffic snarls.
“I don’t have any physical problems other than being old,” she said jokingly. “But with aging, you have to recognize that you have diminished hearing, eyesight and reaction time. I … really concentrate on my driving. I don’t want to be a nuisance on the highway.”
She attended the American Association of Retired Persons Driver Safety Program, an eight-hour refresher course, in April at the Bloomington Adult Activity Center. This class creates awareness through education, discussion and by reminding people of basics of safe driving.
“We aren’t about rules but rather about driving efficiently and safely,” said Dick Robinson, AARP regional coordinator.
The course, which has attracted more than 1 million students since 1967, costs $10, lasts eight hours and covers basics common to any driving course but with emphasis on changing skills.
The class materials discuss planning a route ahead of time, traveling when traffic is lightest and avoiding sudden lane changes.
“We also address physical changes,” Robinson said. “People in this age group are starting to have limitations that sneak up on us. Loss of depth perception, loss of hearing, slower reaction times – all of these affect driving, as do medications that many older people take.”
Diminishing skills mean greater likelihood of being in a crash, and physical condition made frail by aging and disease contributes to the likelihood of dying in a crash.
The AAA Foundation reported that people older than 65 are almost twice as likely to die in auto accidents as drivers 55 to 64. For the older populations, the rates go up even more sharply: drivers older than 75 are 2.5 times as likely to die in a crash and drivers older 85 are almost four times as likely to die when compared with the 55-64 group.
Robinson said some people, when faced with multiple fender benders or too many close-calls, will give up their keys.
“But it is a small percentage who say ‘I can’t (drive any more),”’ he said. “We have to do right for others, as parents and grandparents. If the grandkids won’t ride with you, there’s something wrong. If you are banging up your car a lot, or hitting things in the garage, that’s a warning sign.”
Greg Sidell, a psychiatrist at the Center for Behavioral Health, has worked with older adults whose families have discovered that they are no longer competent drivers.
“In some cases, I try to look at the overall problems, assess each situation from a medical standpoint,” he said. “If the situation warrants, I notify the Bureau of Motor Vehicles that this person’s driving skills need to be assessed.”
When the BMV receives such a letter, either from a doctor or from a concerned family member or friend, a medical review process begins, according to Media Wilson of the BMV communications department in Indianapolis.
Indiana requires that people older than 75 renew their licenses every three years instead of every four, bbut there are no additional tests for that group. Indiana did require older drivers to take a road test, but that was repealed four years ago when a feasibility study found that less than 10 percent of drivers failed that test, which was expensive to administer.
Other states are more demanding. Illinois requires road tests for everyone 75 and older, renewal every two years for drivers 81-86 and each year for drivers older than 87. Washington, D.C., requires a statement from a physicians certifying the driver to be physically and mentally competent to drive. At age 75, drivers may be required to complete written and road tests.
On the other end of the scale, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky have no special limitations for older drivers. Tennessee issues what amounts to a lifetime license to people 65 and older and reduces fees for those 60 and older.
If states can’t afford or choose not to set up testing or training as requirements for licensing older people, some legislators hope private industries will sweeten the pot by offering discounts to those drivers who take refresher courses.
A bill last year sponsored in the Indiana House by Rep. Peggy Welch (D-Bloomington) set forth guidelines for older driver training programs which would require insurance companies to offer discounts to those drivers completing the program. The bill passed in the House but wasn’t heard in the Senate, Welch said.
Many insurance companies already give discounts to drivers who take such classes. Helen Thompson gets a 10 percent discount from her insurer.
“The class reminds you to be aware of what you’re doing,” she said.
Thompson thinks she’ll be open to criticism if and when she needs to hang up her keys. She doesn’t think she’ll be as tenacious as her 91-year-old mother-in-law, who, several years ago when it still was required, took and failed her driving test.
“She took it again and again, until she passed, because she wanted that license. It was a symbol of freedom and independence, whether she ever drove or not,” Thompson said.
Robinson hopes that people will notice their own failings _ the scrapes and near-misses _ and make their own decisions. If that’s not the case, he wants people to listen to family, friends and doctors and notice the effect on the pocketbook.
“At a certain age, it gets so expensive in insurance, especially if there are a lot of claims,” he said.
“You can ride in a lot of taxis for what dangerous driving costs you, and you can sleep at night knowing you aren’t a danger to others.”
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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