When to talk to older relatives about ability to drive
By Cathy Janek For The Sun February 7, 2013 6:20PM
Cathy Janek, Naperville Sun Transportation columnist.
What to ask
Questions that may help you decide if you need to initiate a conversation with an older driver about driving safely:
Getting lost on routes that should be familiar?
Noticing new dents or scratches to the vehicle?
Receiving a ticket for a driving violation?
Experiencing a near miss or crash recently?
Being advised to limit/stop driving due to a health reason?
Overwhelmed by road signs and markings while driving?
Taking any medication that might affect driving safely?
Speeding or driving too slowly for no reason?
Suffering of any illnesses that may affect driving skills?
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Updated: March 11, 2013 6:05AM
Within several weeks of suffering from a stroke last fall, my father-in-law fully anticipated being able to drive himself from the rehabilitation center he had been living during his recovery.
Several difficult conversations transpired between my father-in-law, family members and his physician. Gently citing the concern for the well-being of himself and other motorists, he did agree to not drive temporarily.
Almost 90 percent of motorists 65 and older are suffering from some sort of health issue that affects their driving, according to Beth Moser, director of public affairs for AAA Chicago.
In Illinois, drivers age 75 and older are required to take a behind-the-wheel driving test as part of renewing their driver’s licenses. Drivers between the ages of 81 and 86 are required to renew their driver’s license every two years. Drivers age 87 and older must renew their license annually.
“It is almost cliché, the notion of the old gray-haired person going 45 miles per hour while everyone on the interstate is seething,” said Rich Munro, a senior driver who presents AARP refresher courses through the Naperville Park District. “In my experience, that doesn’t happen too often.”
Initially, many senior drivers take Munro’s course because it gives them a slight discount on their insurance rates. Some choose to repeat the class each year.
“The repeaters feel it brings out points that older drivers should have on the forefront of their consciousness,” Munro said.
As we grow older, eyesight and hearing changes and our reaction time slows down, he said. If an older driver is involved in an accident, he said, they get hurt more easily, take longer to heal and have a higher death rate.
Munro offered tips for senior drivers. If your reaction time slows down, Munro suggests increasing your following distance. He also suggests increasing your following distance in adverse weather.
Backing up can become difficult for drivers who experience stiffness and soreness, Munro added.
“Peripheral vision can weaken as we get older. Drivers also need to make sure they turn around and look in blind spots and when backing up.”
One of the problems every driver, young and old, faces today are distractions, Munro said. When seniors face an unusual situation such as construction site or an accident scene, they should remember to keep the distractions down to a minimum to improve concentration.
At some point, we have to know and realize our driving is going to come to an end, he said.
“I love to drive,” Munro said. “Someday I know I am going to have to curtail my driving. It will be a big deal to me, and I know it is a big deal to other people.”
Self-assessment of driving skills is a good idea, Munro added. He suggests that senior drivers ask someone they trust who can give a fair critique of their driving skills.
Senior drivers also may use a formal driving evaluation program.
“We can be an objective third person in a family situation,” said Anne Hegberg, a certified driver rehabilitation specialist at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital.
To participate in the Marianjoy program, Hegberg said drivers need an order from a physician.
“The evaluation typically lasts about 2 ½ hours and includes a both hands-on driving and clinical assessment,” she said. “We make sure the individual meets the state vision requirements. We also test cognition and visual perception, which is how the brain interprets what the eye sees.”
Hegberg also assesses the driver’s processing time.
“Are they within normal limits for their age?” she added.
Range of motion, neck rotation and the sensation in feet are also measured.
“Some people with diabetes get numbness in their feet,” Hegberg said.
The second part of the evaluation is a behind-the-wheel driving evaluation.
“We have a standard evaluation route, which includes parking and backing up.”
We are very fortunate that within the last year or so, Medicare will pay a portion of the evaluation, she said. Many insurance companies will cover the clinical portion of the evaluation but not the behind-the-wheel part, Hegberg said.
Based on their evaluation, the driver rehab specialist makes suggestions to the individual and family members.
“In some cases, the individual is fine to drive,” Hegberg said. “We may make recommendations for extra adaptive equipment or suggest behind-the-wheel refresher classes.”
Some seniors in the age group that Hegberg sees never had formal driver’s education.
“They didn’t learn some of the things some younger drivers formally learned like checking blind spots,” she added.
Many different types of equipment are available for drivers who are suffering from different health-related issues that could restrict driving, she said. “For example, a left accelerator pedal could be added to a vehicle for a person who has suffered a stroke that affected their right side.”
“We may also recommend driving retirement,” Hegberg said. “We only do this as a last resort and with just cause. In this case, we offer alternative transportation information.”
In cases where it has been recommended that the individual no longer drive, upon agreement with the physician, the individual’s license is medically cancelled by the Illinois Secretary of State,” she added.
“Most people will outlive their ability to drive by eight to 10 years,” Hegberg stressed. “We want people to have some say in it. Some older drivers voluntarily cut back on their driving; they don’t drive in bad weather or at night.”
New technologies have made advances to assist older drivers, Beth Moser of AAA said. Certain health issues such hip and leg pain, decreased leg strength, limited flexibility, and range of motion affect driving.
“We suggest seniors look for vehicles that have six-way adjustable power seats and seat heights that raise to a certain level that make it easier for seniors to enter and exit a vehicle,” she said.
Drivers who have arthritic hands or diminished fine motor skills can benefit from four-door model cars, bigger steering wheels, keyless entry, keyless ignition, power mirrors, power seats, and larger dashboard controls with buttons, Moser said.
“They reduce the pain associated with different turning and twisting motions.”
She also recommended vehicles with dimming mirrors, large audio and climate controls, and displays with contrasting text for drivers who diminished vision or problems with night vision.
The website, seniordriving.aaa.com, has many tools to assist senior drivers and their families.
“If seniors are in the market for a new or used vehicle, this is a great first stop to aid in that decision,” Moser said.
For my father-in-law, while he is not yet driving independently, he has taken advantage of a refresher course to improve his confidence before taking the State of Illinois driver’s examination.