How to Make Older Drivers Safer on Our Roads

Older drivers, especially those over 80 years of age, have been involved in a number of deadly and tragic vehicle accidents in recent months across the Philadelphia area, and the trend is worrisome.

As drivers get older, their eyesight, hearing, reaction time and judgment can degrade, causing them to lose many of the needed skills that are critical to operating a motor vehicle safely. It’s not their fault, of course. It happens to all of us as we age. It’s life.

The issue becomes one for public discourse, however, when older drivers endanger the lives of others on our roadways.

An elderly driver's hands on the steering wheel of a car. Image credit: ©

An elderly driver's hands on the steering wheel of a car. Image credit: ©

So how serious is the problem?

Locally, there have been a number of incidents involving older drivers and vehicle accidents, deaths and injuries, according to a story last month in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Among the accidents:

In December, “an 80-year-old woman in Pennsville, N.J., rammed into an optician’s office that she was visiting when she hit the gas by mistake,” the paper reported.

Last November, “an 84-year-old woman plowed into the Once Again Thrift Shop in Berks County, striking two toddlers,” according to the Inquirer.

In another November crash involving an older driver, a 79-year-old woman died when she drove off Route 73 and into a Marlton pond, the paper reported.

In September, “an 89-year-old Haverford man killed his daughter and injured his wife when he ran them over in his driveway” after he accidentally pressed the wrong foot pedal in his car, according to the Inquirer.

Last July, an 85-year-old man drove his big Mercury Grand Marquis into a fast food restaurant at 8th and Market streets in Philadelphia, injuring six people inside the restaurant, the paper reported.

And in a memorable case from 2010, an 87-year-old woman “made national news on the way to her dentist by driving the wrong way on I-95 in Delaware County,” according to the story. The woman “caused at least four accidents as bug-eyed drivers avoided a head-on collision with her wood-paneled Buick Century station wagon. She still doesn’t understand what happened.”

But here in Pennsylvania, as in many states in the U.S., there are no laws requiring older drivers to have their driving skills retested to keep their licenses. Part of the reason for that, the Inquirer reported, is that politicians “would rather not upset a powerful, rapidly growing segment of the voting public. Pennsylvania has the third-oldest population in the nation, and the number of residents age 62 and older increased 7.7 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the under-18 population decreased 4.5 percent.”

It’s a touchy, difficult subject to bridge with the older drivers in our lives.

But it’s a discussion that we must have to protect older drivers who might be at risk, as well as other drivers, pedestrians and others in society.

What should we do?

The AARP offers an online seminar called “We Need To Talk” to review and discuss the issue with older drivers on your life so you can help determine if an older driver should give up their driving. The seminar helps to assess the older driver’s driving skills and discusses the issue frankly and with sensitivity.

The group, Aging Parents and Elder Care, offers a “checklist” to help determine if older drivers need to hang up their car keys for good.

Among the checklist items are:

Watch for telltale signs of decline in the elderly person’s driving abilities. Do they:

  • Drive at inappropriate speeds, either too fast or too slow?
  • Ask passengers to help check if it is clear to pass or turn?
  • Respond slowly to or not notice pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers?
  • Ignore, disobey or misinterpret street signs and traffic lights?
  • Fail to yield to other cars or pedestrians who have the right-of-way?
  • Fail to judge distances between cars correctly?
  • Become easily frustrated and angry?
  • Appear drowsy, confused or frightened?
  • Have one or more near accidents or near misses?
  • Drift across lane markings or bump into curbs?
  • Forget to turn on headlights after dusk?
  • Have difficulty with glare from oncoming headlights, streetlights, or other bright or shiny objects, especially at dawn, dusk and at night?
  • Have difficulty turning their head, neck, shoulders or body while driving or parking?
  • Ignore signs of mechanical problems, including underinflated tires? (one in 4 cars has at least one tire that is underinflated by 8 pounds or more; low tire pressure is a major cause of accidents.)
  • Have too little strength to turn the wheel quickly in an emergency such as a tire failure, a child darting into traffic, etc.?
  • Get lost repeatedly, even in familiar areas?

“If the answer to one or more of these questions is ‘yes,’ you should explore whether medical issues are affecting their driving skills,” the group states.

In a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the agency notes that “driving helps older adults stay mobile and independent, but the risk of being injured or killed in a motor vehicle crash increases as people age.”

The CDC also offers its own tips for safety for older drivers:

“If you are a driver age 65 or older, you can make your time behind the wheel safer by:

  • Asking your doctor or pharmacist to review your medicines (both prescription and over-the counter) to reduce possible side effects and drug interactions.
  • Having your eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year, and wearing your glasses and contact lenses as required.
  • Planning your route before you drive.
  • Leaving a large following distance behind the car in front of you.
  • Avoiding distractions in your car, such as listening to a loud radio, talking on your cell phone, texting, and eating.
  • Considering potential alternatives to driving, such as riding with a friend or using public transit, that you could use to get around. “

Every family has to talk about this issue with our parents and older relatives as they age. We have to help make the difficult decision when an older driver can no longer safely operate a motor vehicle.

Compassion, understanding, love and concern are all a part of the discussion. It is not easy, but when the time comes for this discussion in your family, deal with it gracefully and with honor.