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This article by Flora Davis was prepared for the June 23, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Senior Safety Behind the Wheel

If you have a frail, elderly relative who still insists on getting

behind the wheel, you know how difficult it is for someone to give up

driving for good. You understand the dilemma, too, if you yourself are

a senior, and you’re aware that your reflexes have slowed – but are

unable to imagine life without a car.

Many seniors outlive their ability to drive safely. That’s a problem

not only for them, but for policy makers and legislators. In New

Jersey, and other states as well, there is talk of requiring vision

tests and/or road tests for seniors – and of doing it before geriatric

baby boomers overrun the roads.

Since December a series of policy forums on "Safe Mobility at Any Age"

has been exploring issues related to senior driving. The fourth

meeting in the series takes place on Wednesday, June 30, at 9 a.m. at

the Sheraton Woodbridge Place. Co-sponsors are the Alan M. Voorhees

Transportation Center at Rutgers University and the New Jersey

Foundation for Aging. These meetings bring together experts on

research, regulatory issues and public policy and will ultimately

generate recommendations for policy and legislation.

The topic of this free meeting is community transportation

alternatives. Anne Canby, president of the Surface Transportation

Policy Project, discusses why seniors need public transportation; Jane

Hardin of the Community Transportation Association of America

discusses national trends in community transportation; and Bob Koska,

director of New Jersey Transit’s local programs, highlights the

state’s approach. Call 609-421-0206 or visit

www.njfoundationforaging.org for more information.

Last February, the second forum in the series explored ways to

evaluate driving skills. Beth Rolland of the Kessler Institute for

Rehabilitation in Saddle Brook, was one of the presenters. An

occupational therapist, she’s also a Certified Driver Rehabilitation

Specialist (CDRS), trained to assess driving ability. New Jersey has

just six CDRSs. (Their names and affiliations are listed at

www.driver-ed.org, or you can get them from the Association for Driver

Rehabilitation Specialists at 800-290-2344.)

In an interview, Rolland explains that when seniors come to her for an

evaluation, most often it’s because their adult children or their

physician insisted. They themselves may be convinced that they’re

still perfectly safe on the road. Driving skills tend to deteriorate

so gradually that the individual doesn’t notice. In addition, many

people cling desperately to their driver’s licenses because they are

vital to their independence.

There are warning signs when driving skills have been compromised,

Rolland said. A series of recent fender benders may be a tip-off, or

the fact that other cars constantly honk at a driver.

A two-hour driver assessment at Kessler, which costs $382, begins with

an off-the-road evaluation of skills such as strength, coordination,

and reaction time. Rolland also checks clients’ peripheral and depth

vision, and whether their eye movements are quick and accurate. She

gives them cognitive tests – to make sure they can pay attention to

more than one thing at a time, for example – and assesses other

skills, as well.

The second part of the evaluation puts the client behind the wheel and

is much more significant, Rolland says. She has her clients navigate a

15-mile loop that takes them through different kinds of intersections

with varying amounts of traffic. "I’m looking basically for two

things: are clients in good physical control of the car and are they

being safe in all situations," she says.

After that, Rolland makes recommendations, a happy ending for many

clients if she confirms that they can continue to drive. Often she

advises them to take a class such as the AARP’s 55 Alive driving

course. Though it’s not behind-the-wheel instruction, it’s excellent

and teaches safer driving, she says.

Some clients have serious problems. Rolland stresses, however, that

it’s often not a pass/fail situation, but rather a question of how she

can help them to be better drivers. "My goal is to keep people behind

the wheel as long as it’s safe," she says. Sometimes the solution is

retraining ($153 an hour at Kessler) and changing bad habits. For

instance, many older drivers rarely use the car’s mirrors, and most

are surprised when Rolland points this out. She teaches them to scan

the mirrors systematically as they drive.

Left turns can be particularly hazardous for seniors, who may find it

difficult to judge the speed of oncoming cars. Rolland explains to

some clients that the safest way to turn left may be to make a series

of right turns instead and go around the block, or to look for a

traffic light with a left-turn arrow.

Rolland isn’t legally obligated to report clients to the state’s Motor

Vehicle Services if she concludes that it isn’t safe for them to

drive, but in rare cases where they dismiss her evaluation, she feels

morally obligated to report them for the sake of others on the road.

When Rolland must advise clients to give up driving, she discusses

other ways to get around: public transportation, community vans or

buses, and organizations that provide rides to medical appointments.

Unfortunately, she says, there really aren’t a lot of options in New

Jersey for people who don’t drive.


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