Health & Fitness

Refresher course could help older drivers stay behind the wheel

We’ve all been there – having to tell aged relatives that it’s time to stop driving. With me, it was my grandfather, who was getting the old Chevy out of the garage largely by feel. Its rear quarter panels looked like relief maps of the Himalayas. I think he was scaring himself, so he went along willingly. The National Safety Council even has a report on this: “ Time to hand over the keys?”.

Actually, some older drivers can probably prolong their time at the wheel, with a refresher course offered by AARP for people 50 and older. It turns out that a lot of the problem is turning – a third of all fatal accidents involving seniors take place at intersections, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Some 35 percent of all of their traffic violations occur because of failure to yield, and one in four are due to improper left turns. Neglecting to stop at a traffic signal is the other most common issue.

An AAA/Carnegie Mellon study found that accident fatality rates climb sharply after age 65. And for drivers 75 to 84, the rate of traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven is about the same as it is with teen drivers. For 85 and over, the death rate is four times that of teens. On AARP’s site, they list 10 telltale signs that an older driver in your family should probably surrender the keys.

Many older drivers have a wealth of experience to draw upon, and a Ben-Gurion University study adds that seniors don’t lose their ability to perceive hazards ahead, and that they’re actually more sensitive to them than young drivers. And they adjust their mirrors.

By 2020, 38 million drivers will be older than 70. Every day, 10,000 people turn 65 – and most of them are still piloting a car. On the road today, 15 percent of all drivers have achieved senior status.

According to Julie Lee, a vice president of AARP Driver Safety, “Many older drivers haven’t had any kind of refresher course since they took driver’s education when they were 16. Many things have changed since then – roads, vehicles and themselves as drivers. Our course encourages them to look at speeding, running stop signs, merging into lanes, making left-hand turns and sharing roads with motorcycles and bikes – which is much more prevalent today.”

Left turns are problematic, because they put older drivers into crowded situations where they have to navigate across traffic. Three right turns will often put you in the same place.

AARP claims that 97 percent of the older drivers who take its course change their behavior as a result of it. They might, for example, self-regulate and no longer drive at night – instead driving in the low-traffic window of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Or they might choose to let someone else drive.