Seniors who drive: When is it time to quit?

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
How would you complete the following fact about senior motorists?

Drivers age 55 and over, compared with drivers age 30-54, are involved in:

a) more accidents per mile;

b) about the same number of accidents;

c) less accidents per mile;

d) it varies each year.

For senior citizens and family members, the answer “a”-more accidents per mile-can become a sobering fact of life and death on the highways. People age 70 and older have more motor-vehicle deaths per licensed driver than any other group except people younger than 25.

Reaching the senior-milestone-age of 60 doesn’t mean that a driver is automatically unsafe. Many seniors continue to be safe drivers well into their 80s.

But when age factors, such as medical and visual problems, affect safe operation of a vehicle, families are faced with helping senior loved ones make the decision to stop driving for their safety and the safety of others.

“Have a nice heart-to-heart talk, and tell them you’re concerned for you and other members of the communities,” said Carmen Alldritt, director of vehicles with the Kansas Department of Revenue Division of Motor Vehicles.

Some seniors willingly give up their car keys and look for alternate ways to get around.

But what happens when they refuse? Knowing an elderly person needs to stop driving and convincing them they must stop can be a challenge.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” said Connee Willis, director of the Hillsboro Senior Center.

“I have advised families, but they won’t take my advice. This is a very touchy thing with families. They say, ‘Well, we just can’t do that to mother.’ But, the thing is, mother may kill somebody.”

When is it time for a senior citizen to stop driving?

The answer is when the process of aging affects safe-driving ability, according to AARP literature.

The common aging factors to be aware of are loss of visual acuity, diminished hearing, changes in physical strength, psychological changes and slower reaction time.

Confronted with an issue that can be clouded with emotion, area seniors and their families can seek help from a number of sources. Those agencies include the Marion County Department for Elderly, community senior centers, the area police forces, the county vehicle department, personal physicians, and the Kansas Department of Revenue Division of Motor Vehicles in Topeka.

“There’s no easy route if the person who should not be driving doesn’t realize they should not be driving,” said Noreen Weems, director of the Marion County Department for Elderly.

If a family member is worried a loved one may no longer be safe on the road, they can arrange an appointment with the appropriate medical team to assess vision, reflexes, strength, attention and other related medical concerns. It’s also helpful to evaluate any dementia problems that could interfer with safe-driving decisions.

“People come and ask, ‘How do we do this?'” Weems said. “You’re just going to need to approach your loved one and say, ‘Is it time that you should not be driving?’

“A lot of times, they will not admit to that. And they’ll end up having a fender bender, or they’ll have something happen, and they realize they should not be driving. Those are some warning signs, and that happens frequently.”

According to the American Geriatrics Society, AARP and the Center on Aging at the UConn Health Center, the following warning signs are indicators of an unsafe driver:

– Failing to observe traffic signals, such as running stop signs or red lights without noticing, stopping at green lights for no reason and making improper left turns;

– Narrowly missing pedestrians or cars without realizing it;

– Making slow or poor decisions, such as switching lanes or merging without looking, failing to yield the right of way, going the wrong way on one-way streets and stopping in the middle of intersections;

– Getting lost in familiar places and the inability to locate familiar places;

– Mixing up gas and brake pedals;

– Driving at inappropriate speeds.

The No. 1 traffic violation committed by drivers age 50 and over is failing to observe the right-of way, and the No. 2 violation by that age group is making improper left turns.

The prospect of losing the ability to drive can be very disturbing for seniors, according to the Web Site Smart Motorist.

Seniors count on their cars to get to full or part-time jobs, go to doctor and dentist appointments, go shopping and visit relatives and friends.

“The elderly equate losing their driving privileges with being dependent, feeling trapped, and perhaps losing choice, control and spontaneity in life,” according to Smart Motorist.

“Discussing driving skill with an older person requires great diplomacy.”

Being aware of alternative means of transportation can be helpful in making the transition from driver to non driver.

In addition to establishing a network of transportation from family members and friends, area seniors can rely on alternative transportation programs, such as those available at senior centers and the Department for Elderly in Marion.

The Hillsboro and Marion Senior centers have a transportation program in place called FISH-Friends I Should Help.

“That’s to provide local transportation for (seniors) who don’t have a vehicle anymore,” Willis said about the program that relies on volunteer drivers.

For a suggested donation of $1 a day, Wednesdays and Fridays, Hillsboro seniors can arrange rides to appointments with doctors, dentists and beauty salons.

“And we can take them on general errands like the grocery stores, banks and the post office,” Willis said. “We’ve even taken someone with their pet to the vet. We’ll also pick up groceries and deliver to them.”

FISH at the Marion Senior Center is available on Tuesdays and Fridays.

For out-of-town trips, one source is the Department for Elderly. “Our Marion County Department for Elderly has two general-public vehicles,” Weems said.

“We have a Caravan that has a ramp and can take somebody in a wheel chair. And we have our larger van that can take larger groups when they go on outings. We run a more county-wide service.”

If diplomacy and reason appear to fall on deaf ears, what alternatives do family members have when senior loved ones refuse to stop driving?

The local police departments can offer information about the proper authorities to contact.

“It’s tough,” said Dan Kinning, Hillsboro police chief.

“Here locally, it’s not as frequent as you might think. We occasionally do get a phone call.”

Kinning said the police department is not authorized to go to a senior’s residence or stop someone indiscriminately just because a family member can’t persuade them to stop driving.

And even if policemen suspect a problem exists when they stop a senior for a traffic violation, officers are not authorized to pull a license. “We’re not physicians or driver’s license examiners, so we can’t test them on the spot,” Kinning said.

The department can fill out a review form to be sent on to the Driver Review section of the Kansas Department of Revenue Division of Motor Vehicles.

Kinning will also refer concerned family members to that same department and instruct them to call 785-296-3601.

“At the driver-review section, we review all the medical, vision and other forms that pertain to driver’s licenses,” said Carmen Alldritt, director of vehicles.

“That’s simply in place to insure the safety of our Kansas roadways and the people who drive and use those.”

When a family member or police officer is aware of a senior who refuses to relinquish driving privileges, the review board will offer the following help:

– Letter of concern-“If a person calls and asks what they can do to make a relative stop driving, we would tell them to write a letter of concern,” said Martha Bean, driver-review supervisor. “It can give a general overview, and it does have to be signed so we know the intent is true and not malicious.”

– Contacting the senior-The senior in question is notified by the review board and appropriate forms are sent, such as medical or visual forms. For a fee, the senior can receive a copy of the letter of concern.

– Responding to the request-The driver is given 30 days to fill out the necessary forms, such as evaluations from physicians, and return them to the review board.

If the forms are returned and a physician confirms that the driver is safe to drive and has had no loss of consciousness in the last six months, the review board requires a driving test.

If the forms are not returned in due time, the review board will revoke the license. “And if the doctor says they aren’t safe to drive or they’ve had a loss of consciousness in the last six months, we will revoke their license or deny renewal,” Bean said.

For seniors who have lost their driver’s license or choose to not continue driving, they can get an ID card from the vehicle department at the Marion County Courthouse.

Seniors may apply for an ID card if they have a current license and turn it in to the vehicle department.

“We will issue an ID card, because they are already in the system, and we know we’re not processing anything that’s illegal,”
said Sandra Svoboda, vehicle supervisor.

The department will not issue new ID cards, nor can a resident have an ID card and a driver’s license at the same time.

“But if someone turns in their license, we will issue an ID card,” Svoboda said. A senior-citizens’ discount will apply to the cost of the ID.

Similar to driver’s licenses, ID cards must be renewed every four years for drivers over the age of 64 and under 21, and every six years for drivers 21 to 64.

Pooling resources, seniors and family members can make the process of discontinuing driving an easier transition by contacting the many sources available in the county.

But, the first step starts at home.

“If a family member or neighbor or friend of someone is very concerned, the best way is to just approach that person and try to handle it as lovingly and kind as you can,” Weems said.

“Just say, ‘It’s maybe come to the time where you might want to think about letting someone else do your driving.'”

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