Keeping It Going: Driving into Old Age

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In my mid sixties I let a friend talk me into motorcycling, which I had not done since my twenties. I bought a used Honda Nighthawk and got a driving permit from the Georgia Department of Driver Services. We rode around the area for a couple of months, and it seemed as if the old handling skills and road savvy were coming back. So I scheduled and took the necessary driving test, and I thoroughly flunked it.

Under the watchful eye of a test administrator, applicants must ride a set of maneuvers on a closed, tightly laid out course. Limping home with a wounded ego, I had to relate the failure to my family and friends, and more importantly, I had to devise a strategy to overcome the defeat.

The following Sunday I rode to the test site with a notepad and a 100-foot tape. I measured the critical dimensions of the course and then bought some sidewalk chalk at Walmart. Over the next few weeks I laid out the key parts of the course in parking lots all over town, then practiced riding through them. Soon I felt ready and scheduled the next test, on which I earned a near perfect score.

The Need to Drive

In the last post Elvis Donnelly introduced us to the problem of aging drivers. Inevitably and at different rates and times, our driving skills decline with age. Managing that decline, balancing the older driver’s desires to keep going against the perils of declining ability is a real challenge for many older drivers and their families.

Often the focus turns to limiting or stopping the older driver, but it would seem that at least initially, a better plan would involve preserving and improving an older person’s driving skills. In a society wedded to automobiles, driving confers independence and freedom. A driver who must stop is suddenly dependent and limited.

Older drivers from rural areas obviously need a car to shop, attend church or engage in any activities away from home. If they lose their car, they are stuck on the farm.

City dwellers are also vulnerable. Although they may have public transportation, it may be unsafe, as may be their neighborhoods. Transferring buses and trains can be as confusing as navigating an interchange of three superhighways. Further, urban pedestrians need to react quickly to speeding city traffic, rapidly changing traffic signals, sidewalk crowds, urban noise, and complex intersections.

Instead, with a car, a driver can often navigate slowly through back streets using an indirect route and reach a destination with less difficulty than walking and using public transportation.


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Age-Related Driver Scrutiny

Our physical abilities decline as we age, and those declines affect driving ability. Perhaps most important are eye sight, hearing, and reaction time. Regular medical checkups help. They identify problems and offer remedies like glasses and hearing aids. A number of websites offer questionnaires to help drivers and their families evaluate their driving status. In the last post, Elvis Donnelly recommended an Assessment Checklist from the National Caregivers Library. AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, offers their own 10 Signs. It also publishes Warning Signs for Older Drivers, which can be used to observe and assess driving behavior. AAA, the American Automobile Association, publishes online a several page brochure for seniors to check their driving performance. It is thorough, and it can be downloaded or printed.

The importance of age-related changes is underscored by the number of states that call for special evaluations of older people who want to renew driver’s licenses. Many states require personal, in-office renewal as opposed to Internet renewal. Others insist on vision tests and more frequent renewals as people age. Several offer citizens the option to report unsafe drivers, who then must submit to further evaluation. This website offers a list, published in September 2012, of the requirements by state,.

Courses and Programs

Reaction time is more complex, involving physical and mental components. The basics of improving reaction time seem to involve practice of specific exercises. No matter our age, practice can improve reaction time and extend our driving lives. My motorcycle experience is an example—through practice I improved my reaction time and ability to ride sharp curves at prescribed speeds.

Older drivers can take safe driving courses to sharpen their skills and review the rules of the road. AARP offers an online driver safety course and, through cooperating organizations, a classroom course. Where I live, there are about 10 classroom courses within 35 miles. The one at our local Athens Community Council on Aging is a six-hour course.

AARP has recently published an e-book, “Drive Smart,” which is available for $2.99 from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple and Kobo. It is an excellent discussion of driving safety and is especially useful for older drivers. It may be the best place to begin planning a safe-driving program for yourself or family members.

AAA  offers senior driving services. The services include discussions of physical and mental changes that attend aging, tips on save driving, ideas for maintaining independence, and resources for family and friends.

AAA also offers a confidential prescription drug evaluation to help people see if any medications affect their driving, a program to help people adjust their cars to fit them better, and two defensive driving courses, one online (in Georgia it is 30 hours) and a classroom course, Mature Operator, in various places around the country (Georgia does not offer this program but AAA does refer members to local private driving schools).

All-in-all, there is a large amount of low-cost information and many services available to older drivers. Many of these resources are designed to help people maintain their driving skills. My motorcycle experience taught me to focus on one driving problem at a time and use available resources to plan specific solutions.

Driving is like any skill: people who study, practice, and seek improvement will become better and last longer. We owe it to ourselves and others to become the smartest and safest drivers that we can be.

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