By SARA ARTHURS
Ohio has seen four consecutive years of rising traffic deaths involving drivers age 65 and older, and the Ohio Department of Aging and the Ohio Department of Transportation are working to raise awareness of available resources for older drivers during Older Driver Safety Awareness Week.
Drivers age 65 and older represent the fastest-growing segment of licensed drivers in Ohio and across the nation.
For the most part, “older drivers are safer on the road” because they tend to be more careful, said Meredith Hawkins Pitt, who teaches gerontology at the University of Findlay. But they are also more likely to be seriously injured or killed in an auto accident.
If a senior is injured in a car accident, it will typically take them longer to recover than a younger person. Older women, for example, are more prone to osteoporosis, so if they break a bone in a car accident it will take longer to heal than that of a younger adult.
Pitt said seniors should know that adaptive driving devices such as wheelchair ramps do exist, but they may have to adapt to using them.
Older drivers may be slower to pull out in front of a car because their judgment of distance is lacking, Pitt said, noting there is also a tendency to stereotype older drivers. She asks her students, if they are driving behind someone who is slow, “What’s your first assumption?”
Normal aging may increase common risk factors for roadway accidents, including changes in vision, hearing, strength, visibility, reflexes and memory. Medical conditions and certain medications also may impact the ability to drive safely. Older drivers also may drive older vehicles that no longer fit their needs, such as one that is too big or too small, or one in which the seats, steering wheel and mirrors do not adjust sufficiently. Finally, a fear of driving and traffic can increase the risk of a crash.
Pitt has had people tell her “they yanked their parents’ keys,” but this isn’t best approach, as there’s a lot of pride that goes along with being able to be independent.
Instead of yanking those keys, she encourages family to “have open communication without judgment,” and be as empathetic as possible. Assuming you are yourself a driver, think about how it limits your options when you’re without your car just for a day because it’s at the mechanic.
“So much is tied up in our ability to drive,” Pitt said.
She added research has shown that seniors are willing to listen to their doctor, so it may help to get the doctor involved in that conversation.
“The ability to get around safely in their neighborhoods allows older Ohioans to continue to feel connected and access opportunities to contribute to their communities,” said Beverley Laubert, director of the Ohio Department of Aging. “To maintain their mobility, older Ohioans should become aware of their changing abilities, understand the factors that can increase the risk of a crash and learn about resources in their communities to maintain their driving ability or find alternatives to driving.”
The state campaign offered the following tips for senior drivers:
• Stay aware of your changing physical, vision and hearing abilities and adjust your driving habits accordingly. Exercise regularly to increase and maintain your strength and flexibility.
• Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any medical conditions you have or medications you take could make it unsafe to drive.
• Try to do most of your driving during daylight and in good weather. Avoid busy roadways and rush hours whenever possible.
• Plan your route and choose routes with well-lit streets, intersections with left turn signals and easy parking.
• Avoid distractions, including talking or texting on a cellphone, eating or listening to a loud radio. In-car conversations can also be distracting.
• Leave plenty of room between you and the vehicle in front of you so you can react if the other driver stops or slows suddenly.
• Do not drive too slowly, as this can be as unsafe as speeding.
The Ohio Department of Aging offers a web page (www.aging.ohio.gov/transportation) listing transportation and driving tips and resources for older adults. The page includes a link to “Stay Fit to Drive,” a publication of the Ohio Department of Transportation that includes statistics about older-driver crashes and tips to reduce key risk factors.
Pitt also noted some suggestions from the AARP on when to reconsider driving, including: not being able to stay in the lane of travel; frequent dents or scrapes; or trouble paying attention, among others.
A diagnosis of dementia will affect the ability to reason, leaving a driver confused about what a road sign means, Pitt said.
In March, an AARP driver safety course will be held at 50 North. Advance registration and fee ($15 for AARP members and $20 for nonmembers) is required by Feb. 28.