Keeping senior drivers safe and on the road

By Corey AmEnde - Staff Writer
Statewide - posted Wed., Nov. 27, 2013
Laura Caron-Parker, an occupational therapist with Genesis Rehab Services, consults with a senior driver at a CarFit event at the Manchester Senior Center on Sept. 28. Photo contributed by AAA. - Contributed Photo

Americans love their cars. They are a testament to our ingenuity and creativity. The car can be a portable office, a taxi-cab service for taking family members back and forth, or just the basic means to get from one place to another. Regardless of how we use our cars, most people feel that having a car and a license is a link to independence, giving us the sense that we are free to go where we want to, when we want to.

But as people age, their ability to drive safely can begin to decline, putting this all-important freedom in jeopardy. With the large number of baby boomers who are now senior drivers, the issue of diminished driving skills becomes a sensitive, yet important focus.

“It’s a very difficult issue for our society because we’re really a car-centric society,” said Garry Lapidus, the director for the Injury Prevention Center and Trauma Institute at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and Hartford Hospital. “If you lose your ability to drive or lose your keys – in other words, you’re not driving any more – your mobility is really restricted quite a bit, and in many places in our country we don’t have great mass-transportation, so it can really impact a senior's quality of life an awful lot,” said Lapidus.

And as we live longer in general as a society, senior driving is an issue for all sectors of society to be aware of.  In 2010, there were 40 million people in the U.S. aged 65 and older, representing 13 percent of the population, according to a report entitled “Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-Being,” produced by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. By 2030, the number of older Americans is expected to reach 72 million, or nearly 20 percent of the population, the report stated.

In order to gain a better understanding of the issues facing senior drivers, the Injury Prevention Center at Hartford Hospital created “The Mature Driver Safety Program.”  The program is based off of AAA’s “Roadwise Review” which was created in 2005.  The “Roadwise Review” is a 30-minute computer program designed to be used as a self-screening device in the privacy of one’s home.  The “Roadwise Review” addresses the following eight driving tasks: leg strength and general mobility, head/neck flexibility, high-contrast visual acuity, low-contrast visual acuity, working memory, visualization of missing information, visual information processing speed and visual search.  The program rates the results from each category and gives the participant a rating of no impairment, mild impairment or serious impairment.  Recommendations for further action, such as seeing a physician, are given for areas where participants receive a mild impairment or serious impairment rating.

According to Lapidus, AAA said they were handing out “hundreds of thousands” of these programs, but since they were conducted in the privacy of the home, the results weren’t known. The Injury Prevention Center adapted the “Roadwise Review” by adding a screening administrator to test for the eight tasks. The test is interactive using a computer under the supervision of an administrator.  Developers of the test had to modify the original version due to usability concerns.

“When we first started doing this we had people using a mouse, and some of the older people even had trouble with the mouse,” said Kevin Borrup, the associate director at the Injury Prevention Center. “So what we did is we converted it to a touch screen.”

The pilot program was launched in 2010 in senior centers in six towns in the Greater Hartford area. Seniors were given the tests and then participated in a study to help track results. 

A total of 151 participants completed the program. The age range was 65 to 93 years old. A breakdown of the impairments found across the eight tasks shows 8 percent of participants with no impairment, 52 percent had serious impairment, and the rest had mild impairment. Referrals for follow-up care with physicians were given out to 75 percent of the participants, with 74 percent of them reporting an intent to complete the referral, during a follow-up with the study. 

“We’re not trying to necessarily pull the keys from people, but just make them aware of changes - and if they have some changes, hopefully they’re mild, they can get them addressed and they can continue to drive,” said Lapidus.

The study also showed that nearly 50 percent of participants avoid bad weather driving, 47.1 percent avoid night driving and 31.7 percent avoid high traffic roads and highways. “The good news is that older drivers tend to self-regulate,” said Lapidus.

The program is currently in a “pause” since the funding stream ended in September.  Lapidus said he would like to find funding to restart the program.  He said the next study to be done would examine whether or not finding impairments and sending drivers to get help results in less crashes and less traffic violations.

The good news for senior drivers is that just because they might have a mild or serious impairment, that doesn’t mean that they have to stop driving altogether.  There are plenty of resources available to keep seniors on the road and driving safely.

“Nobody wants to be told they’re doing something incorrectly, and we take driving to be a very personal thing, a very personal activity,” said Stephen Rourke, manager of the driving school administration at AAA in West Hartford. 

AAA in West Hartford offers a mature driver improvement program which is a four-class instruction conducted by a master instructor.  There is also an in-car observation that lasts about an hour.  Rourke said the in-car observation requires a brief vision screening prior to taking the road which is required by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).  Participants are given a report at the end of the observation which details where they can improve their driving and how they can improve.  The result of the report is kept confidential and not reported back to the DMV. 

“Additionally we also take either of those forums to let mature drivers know about changes in the law and also some technology changes in the car which they may be completely unaware of,” said Rourke, adding that Connecticut does not require re-testing for a driver's license unless the license has been suspended. 

AAA also offers a program called CarFit that examines how a driver works with their vehicle such as, “mirror adjustments and seat adjustments,” said Aaron Kupec, public affairs manager with AAA. 

But even with the assessments and adjustments, sometimes there’s a point where it’s time to take the keys away.  The National Institute on Aging recommends a few questions for seniors to ask themselves to help determine if it’s time to give up driving. These include:

• do other drivers often honk at me?

• do I get lost, even on roads I know?

• do cars or people walking seem to appear out of nowhere?

Rourke said he’s had grown children call in about their parents declining driving skills. “The grown son or daughter really wants us to say their mom or dad can’t drive, and that’s not our role,” said Rourke. “It can be very confrontational and emotional, and getting a third party in such as us can kind of smooth the waters over on both ends of the equation,” said Rourke.

Ed Paquette, a social work supervisor with the town of Manchester, said there are several options for transportation for seniors who can’t drive including public transportation through the Connecticut Transit and Dial-A-Ride. 

Patricia Richardson, the choices regional coordinator at the North Central Area Agency on Aging, said other transportation options include companion agencies, Freedom Ride and ITNNorthCentralConnecticut.

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