Staying On the Road
Techniques and technology to help Seniors drive more safely.
John Wolff, who turns 96 this month, drives his 1995 Buick Regal to doctor's appointments, local shops and, on Saturdays, to teach a class at Georgetown law school. "I just love to drive," he says. "It's the key to my independence." Wolff's daughter, Patricia Hartman, 59, is somewhat less enthusiastic about her dad's outings, but she tries not to worry about her father's driving. "His health is good, he's really alert, and his reflexes are great," she says. "He's always been slow and cautious. When I was a kid, it drove me crazy, and his driving hasn't changed much. Now it seems safe." But as Wolff carefully maneuvers the large vehicle through his Washington neighborhood, passing motorists sometimes shoot him a look. Roughly translated, it says, "Should you be on the road?"
There are currently 18.5 million licensed drivers who are age 71 or beyond. Conventional wisdom lumps them with teenagers--as mobile menaces who need to have their car keys taken away. But older drivers' advocates such as the AARP and the AAA argue that the focus should be not on taking older drivers off the road but on helping them drive more safely.
Dr. Robert Rawley, head of the medical advisory board for the Maryland department of motor vehicles, is studying 2,500 drivers at five-year intervals to see how age affects skills. He says that as vision starts to diminish, drivers are blinded by the halo effect of lights at night and are less able to judge the speed of oncoming cars. As physical changes such as arthritis set in, some older drivers find it more difficult to turn their head to check their blind spot. "With functional testing, we can identify where drivers are having problems and do a lot to help correct them with occupational therapy and simple adaptive equipment on the car," Rawley says.
Researchers at the AgeLab at M.I.T. have developed a "smart car" to test technologies that may extend the safe-driving life of older people. The fire engine-red 2000 VW Beetle is outfitted with driving simulators and bumper-mounted sensors that use radar to activate collision-warning and emergency-alert systems.
The collision-warning system gauges the speed and distance of oncoming traffic, which can help older drivers safely make a left-hand turn--the most common cause of crashes for the elderly. The emergency-alert system beeps when a car drifts from its lane. A vision-enhancement screen on the windshield helps reduce glare from the halo effect of approaching lights.
Some modifications, including glare reduction, are already available in higher-end vehicles, but until they can be installed in all cars, driver-rehabilitation specialists say, older people can institute these simple changes to make driving safer:
Wider rearview and side mirrors, adjusted properly, can eliminate blind spots and compensate for decreased mobility in the neck.
RAISED DRIVER'S SEAT
A seat cushion will raise a driver to an appropriate height where the eye level is roughly even with the bottom of the rearview mirror.
Smaller drivers should have pedal extensions installed to keep them a safe 10 in. away from the steering wheel and the dangerous air bag.
Keeping the radio off and curtailing conversation can help drivers concentrate on the road.
Driver's-education classes designed for older people, such as those offered by the AARP, AAA and National Safety Council, can teach how to maintain a safe distance between cars, estimate blind spots and properly merge into oncoming traffic.
States vary in how they accommodate diminished capacity in older drivers. Only two--Illinois and New Hampshire--require a road test every two or four years for drivers ages 75 and older. Other states have accelerated renewals at two-year intervals and require vision tests after age 65. Iowa and Florida are following new engineering guidelines set down by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They are designed to help older drivers by enlarging the type on street signs, creating left-hand-turn lanes and improving lighting along roadways. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that four-way stop signs alone reduce accidents by 50%.
Rawley, of the Maryland dmv, says his office gives in-depth, two-hour examinations to more than 2,000 older drivers a year for license renewal, but he stresses that age alone doesn't indicate driving problems. "Even people who seem quite frail and have some physical problems might be just fine on the road," he says. "I recently examined a 100-year-old woman who had excellent reflexes and abilities, and I didn't hesitate to renew her license. So age isn't the issue. Impairment is. With some testing, training and adaptations to cars and roads, we can help people chart a course to keep them driving safely well into old age."