All of us cherish a feeling of freedom when we’re behind the wheel of a car on vacation. That sense of independence never changes as people age.
But the body does - in ways that diminish driving skills and increase the likelihood of an accident, an even more trying experience when away from home.
Natural physical changes, which often start to accelerate past age 55, may include a narrowing of peripheral vision, an increase in reaction time and/or a decline in hearing acuity.
Such factors contribute to older drivers having more fatal crashes per mile driven than any other age group except teenagers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Per licensed driver, this rate begins to rise at age 65.
That’s why it makes sense for senior travelers to tune up their automobile aptitude, as growing numbers are doing in special courses.
“If older drivers are in a crash, it’s likelier to be fatal because their bodies aren’t in as good a condition to withstand the trauma as younger people,” points out Charles Butler, director of driver safety for the American Automobile Association (AAA).
Unlike younger drivers, senior motorists aren’t as prone to such traffic violations as speeding or reckless driving. But they do show problems in driving situations requiring quick response, full vision and interaction with other drivers.
Typical violations for which a senior driver might be cited include failure to yield right-of-way, turning improperly or incorrectly changing lanes, passing or entering or leaving expressways.
As a result, the rate of multiplevehicle crashes, especially at intersections, rises with age. Fiftytwo percent of fatal crashes involving Americans 80 and older are of this type, compared with 22 percent for those 16 to 19.
Determined not to join these statistics, Lyda Brierly, 82, of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Edith Freedman, 68, of Tampa, are among the thousands of senior motorists who are tuning up their driving skills.
They’ve taken an eight-hour course for mature drivers called 55 Alive/ Mature Driving that was developed by the American Association of Retired Persons. The National Safety Council and AAA have created similar courses for seniors.
In 32 states and the District of Columbia, including Washington, Idaho (65-plus), and Montana, those completing one of these programs will receive a discount, often 5 percent to 10 percent, on their auto insurance rates.
The courses are taught at retirement homes, banks, hospitals, churches, car dealers, shopping malls, libraries and other locations, often by volunteers trained as instructors.
“I think the insurance discount is the big incentive to take the course,” Freedman says. “People arrive thinking that because they’ve been driving so long they know it all. But they’re very surprised at how much they learn.”
Brierly has taken the 55 Alive course every three years since she turned 70.
“As we get older, we have to acknowledge we aren’t as alert as we once were, and need to pay more attention than ever to what’s going on around us when we drive,” she says. “This course teaches us how.”
Some 500,000 seniors enroll in AARP’s 55 Alive program each year. AAA’s mature-driver course is offered through about 65 of its U.S. and Canadian motor clubs. The National Safety Council program is presented by various agencies and businesses, such as senior centers, state departments of motor vehicles, or insurance companies. Cost varies from $8 for the AARP course, to $10 to $40 charged by the AAA clubs.
These courses show participants how the aging process affects the body, then focus on ways to minimize the effects of those changes.
For example, the courses deal with increased reaction time.
To compensate for this, senior students learn to minimize distractions by turning off the radio and avoiding smoking, eating or the use of car phones. They also are taught to concentrate on traffic rather than sightseeing, and to leave more room between their automobile and the car ahead.
“We also show people that they don’t know how to use their eyes properly,” Butler says. “For example, the average driver looks only three or four seconds ahead of his car. We show how to look farther down the roadway to give yourself more time to respond to situations.
“Driving is a mental and social activity,” Butler says. “It requires you to make good, sound decisions on how to avoid collisions. The first step is using your eyes to search the environment. You identify what’s out there, then predict what’s going to happen. You decide what you’re going to do, then execute it. As we age, this processing of information takes the average individual longer.”
The courses deal with other physical changes such as a reduction in the tolerance for glare as well as in the ability to see clearly in low light and recognize colors. Arthritis or loss of muscle tone may make it impossible to turn and glance over either shoulder to see into blind spots before passing or changing lanes. Medications may increase drowsiness or cause blurred vision, overexcitability or a false sense of alertness.
Senior students are reminded to compensate by keeping windshields clean, installing special mirrors, and discussing the effects of medications with their doctors.
The instructors also discuss technology introduced after seniors first learned to drive, such as righthand mirrors and anti-lock brakes, and teach students to deal with freeway driving, a style they didn’t grow up with.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: For more information The American Association of Retired Persons offers an “Older Driver Skill Assessment and Resource Guide,” which can be ordered by asking for it by name from AARP 55 Alive, 601 E. St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20049. The American Automobile Association has a series of five brochures called “Straight Talk for Older Drivers,” including “Buying a Car,” “Meeting the Challenge,” “Good Vision: Vital to Good Driving,” “Maintaining Your Vehicle,” and “RX for Safe Driving.” The brochures are available by sending a self-addressed, stamped, legal size envelope - one per pamphlet - to American Automobile Association, Public Relations Department (MS 75), 1000 AAA Drive, Heathrow, Fla. 32746.
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