Older Drivers and Avoiding Disaster – Part II

According to AAA, a typical driver makes 20 decisions per mile and has less than half of a second to respond to changes in the roadway. These factors can be challenging for the most competent drivers.  However, when a driver’s thinking skills are a little slower, or their physical response is delayed due to changes in health and functioning, this driver may be courting disaster.

AAA and The National Institutes of Health have identified some of the warning signs that older drivers demonstrate when their driving skills are becoming a potential safety risk.

  • Failing to yield the right of way
  • Difficulty staying within their travel lane
  • Difficulty in judging the time or distance required to turn safely across traffic
  • Failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, or missing a stop sign altogether
  • Driving too slowly in an attempt to compensate for slowed reaction time
  • Driving too fast due to lack of recognition of their actual speed or a fear of being told they drive too slowly
  • Getting lost or disoriented in familiar places
  • A reluctance to drive alone (having someone else along to be a “co-pilot” is reassuring)
  • Other drivers frequently honk at the individual
  • Confusing the gas and brake pedals
  • Lifting the leg to move from one pedal to another instead of keeping the heel on the floor and pressing with the toes (this can indicate decreased leg strength).
  • Signaling incorrectly, failing to signal, or failing to check blind spots when changing lanes
  • Unexplained scratches or dents on the vehicle
  • More than one minor “fender bender” within a reasonable period of time
  • Stopping in traffic for no apparent reason
  • Parking inappropriately

One of the quickest ways to determine if any of these signs are occurring is to observe patterns of driving by riding along with the individual on routine trips over a period of time. Speaking with others who have been passengers, or with neighbors who may have observed the driver’s ability to back out of a garage or driveway, can lend additional insight into the driver’s skills. Observing the exterior condition of the car, the walls and doorway of the garage, and the mailbox may also reveal clues about driver safety.

If an older driver exhibits one or more of the above warning signs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the driver’s license should be revoked. An older driver may benefit from taking a mature driver improvement course, in order to learn how to modify unsafe driving habits.  In Pennsylvania, those who are age 55 and older are eligible to receive a 5% discount on their insurance rates upon completion of the course.  To maintain the discount, the course may need to be repeated every few years.  Check with your personal insurance carrier for details.  Penn DOT has approved the basic and refresher mature driver improvement courses offered by three organizations:  AAA (www.aaa.com or visit your local office), AARP (www.aarp.org or call 888-227-7669), and Safe 2 Drive (www.safe2drive.com or call 800-763-1297).

A professional driving assessment is another option to help determine if an individual is qualified to drive, and/or if there are personal or vehicle modifications which can be made to improve driver safety. In the Cumberland County area, driving assessments are available at Healthsouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Mechanicsburg (phone 717-691-4900) and Penn State Hershey Medical Center (phone 717-531-7105).  These assessments vary in length and include an evaluation of a variety of skills in order to determine ongoing driver safety, not just safety on the day that the assessment is completed. An occupational therapist who has received specific training in driving rehabilitation is often the professional who will administer the assessment.

In the past two weeks we’ve covered some of the statistics related to older drivers, potential signs of driver impairment, and a couple of options for addressing suspected impairment. Initiating a discussion about driver safety with an older adult is probably the most difficult step in this process.  Next week’s article will address how to have “the talk.”

Karen Kaslow, RN

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