In the next 20 years, the population of people age 65 and older is expected to reach 70 million. Many of these will be drivers. Pennsylvania has the third-largest population of older people in the nation. In fact, 22 percent of Pennsylvania's registered drivers are 65 or older.
In 2017, there were 21,319 crashes in Pennsylvania involving drivers 65 and older, resulting in 270 fatalities. Crash rates increase as drivers age because these drivers may have health conditions or take medications that negatively affect their driving abilities, and this can put them and other road users at risk.
These drivers may not be aware of these changes, or they may not be willing to admit them – to themselves or to others – including family members. Or in the case of people with cognitive impairments like dementia, they don't necessarily have the insight to recognize poor performance.
Many family members or caregivers wonder what they should do if they think a loved one's driving skills have diminished. And that's the dilemma. Family members don't know how to assess their loved one's driving abilities. They dread approaching an older loved one to discuss whether he or she needs to modify his or her driving habits or even stop driving.
However, older drivers and their loved ones and caregivers need to take a realistic, ongoing inventory of the older driver's skills and openly discuss them. Family members need to remember one very important thing: many older drivers look at driving as a form of independence. Bringing up the subject of their driving abilities can make some drivers defensive, angry, hurt, or withdrawn. Be prepared with observations and questions, listen with an open mind, and be prepared to offer possible transportation alternatives.
While every person ages differently, aging typically brings certain — sometimes subtle — physical, visual and cognitive changes that could impair an older person's ability to drive safely. Signs that can indicate it may be time to limit or stop driving altogether include:
- Feeling uncomfortable, fearful, or nervous when driving;
- Unexplained dents/scrapes on the car, fences, mailboxes, or garage doors;
- Frequently getting lost and frequent "close calls" (i.e. almost crashing);
- Slower response times, particularly to unexpected situations;
- Difficulty paying attention to signs or staying in the lane of traffic; and
- Trouble judging gaps at intersections or highway entrance/exit ramps.
CarFit, an educational program created by the American Society on Aging and developed with AAA, AARP, and the American Occupational Therapy Association, is designed to help older drivers find out how well they currently fit their personal vehicle, to learn how they can improve their fit, and to promote conversations about driver safety and community mobility.
The Wolf Administration encourages older drivers and their loved ones to review PennDOT's Seniors Driving Safely publication series, which can be downloaded for free from the PennDOT website. These publications help older drivers assess their abilities and offer guidance on next steps if their medical condition is reported to PennDOT. The series also includes a publication designed to guide family and friends of older drivers in what can sometimes be difficult conversations about deciding to stop driving, as well as information for healthcare providers on PennDOT's medical reporting program.
The following safe-driving habits, which should be routine at any age, are especially useful to older drivers:
- Plan ahead: lengthy car trips should be made during daylight hours. Morning may be best because most people aren't as tired as they are in the afternoon.
- Don't drive in rush-hour traffic if you can avoid it. Plan trips after 9:00 AM or before 5:00 PM. Know what roads near home are most congested and avoid them.
- When driving long distances, especially in winter, call ahead for weather and road condition updates.
- Look ahead. Good drivers get a jump on trouble by looking far down the road and making adjustments before encountering problems that may involve other vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists or animals.
- Maintain a safe speed. This depends on what the road is like, how well the driver can see, how much traffic there is and how fast traffic is moving.
- Keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead of you. The PA Driver's Manual advises that you should always keep a 4-second gap between you and the vehicle in front of you.
Additional information on older driver safety and mobility resources can be found at www.penndot.gov/safety.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contributed to this article.