Corrections or additions?
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.
Corrections or additions?
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