Are you avoiding driving at night because you can’t read the street signs or see the exit ramps any longer? Are the headlights from other vehicles blinding you? Have you almost missed a traffic cop motioning you to stop? Is taking a left turn at a major intersection becoming a much bigger challenge than it used to be?
If you answered yes to any of these things, it may be a good time to attend ‘Shifting Gears,’ a comprehensive older driver safety program run by the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Michele Ellicks, Director of Community Outreach at the RMV, presents her mobile workshop at senior centers, libraries, housing authorities, and other venues throughout the state.
“I love to go out into the communities and help seniors one-on-one,” said Ellicks, who educates elders about recognizing the warning signs of unsafe driving and the age-related changes that may contribute to it. “We discuss the new driving laws, and talk about the sensitive subject of how to create a specific plan for driving retirement if and when that becomes necessary.”
While some seniors can go on driving well into their nineties, many others have trouble seeing at night because of a loss of light and depth perception and peripheral view. Arthritic conditions can cause them to lose mobility in their neck, and even the motion of moving from gas pedal to brake can become laborious. Despite these issues, according to the Insurance Industry of Highway Safety, drivers between the ages of 55 and 74 are involved in fewer crashes than any other age group. Unfortunately, at age 75, those statistics take a dramatic turn for the worse.
“People aged 75 and older have the highest collision rate of all drivers in the Commonwealth,” said Ellicks. “And motorists 80 years old and over have the highest fatality rate. Their bodies cannot withstand the impact of collisions as well as younger drivers can. Massachusetts now requires all drivers, aged 75 or older to renew their license in person every five years and pass an eye test. You may do this at the Registry or at the local office of Triple A. The RMV offers ‘Senior Hours’ every Wednesday morning by reservation only. Call 857-368-8005 to request an appointment.”
There is another legal ramification facing many older drivers. A substantial percentage of people over the age of 65 are on prescription or over-the-counter medicines, which could potentially alter their ability to operate a vehicle safely.
“OUI doesn’t only refer to driving under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs,” said Ellicks. “Many of the medications older people take for high blood pressure, heart issues, and even allergies can have an effect on their driving. If you are prescribed a medication, pay close attention within the first 48 to 72 hours to see if it makes you drowsy, light headed, or nauseated. You must make sure it’s not impacting your ability to drive, and if it is, don’t drive. Call your doctor and get it sorted out. You will be liable if an accident happens.”
Ellicks urges the families or caregivers of older drivers to be on the alert for changes in their driving abilities. “Eventually, the time may come to sit down with your relative in a calm, respectful manner and have a talk,” she said. “No one wants to give up the independence of driving a car, but if they have a plan in place, many people are able to do it with less fear and resistance. I suggest that seniors do their homework now before any sort of crisis evolves.”
Ellicks urges potential “driving retirees” to identify the places they like to go—visiting friends, food shopping, doctor’s appointments, etc.—then research how they might get there without driving. What alternatives are there in the community—buses, senior shuttles, family members, ride sharing? An online resource called Massridematch.org, allows people to enter their address and where they want to go on the site, and a list of local ride match options will appear.
During her Shifting Gears seminars, Ellicks offers numerous RMV and Department of Transportation safety tips and strategies to improve “older driver physical fitness.”
Among them are:
- Have your eyes checked and update your glasses prescription regularly.
- Don’t wear sunglasses past dusk or tint your car’s windows.
- Buckle your seatbelt and turn off your mobile devices.
- Use two hands on the wheel.
- Avoid eating and conversing vigorously with passengers.
- Get 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate exercise weekly, including cardio and stretching.
- Make sure your seat, side, and rearview mirrors are positioned for full visibility.
- If your driver’s seat is too low, sit on a wedge pillow to see more of the road around you.
- Make sure you can move your foot back and forth from gas to brake smoothly.
- Have a hearing test and, if prescribed, wear your hearing aid while driving.
- Avoid driving during sunrise or sunset when the sun can shine directly in your line of vision.
- If possible, choose a car with automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes (automatic emergency breaking if available) and large mirrors. Enable driver assistance alerts if your vehicle has them.
- Brighten the visibility on your dashboard, and avoid tuning radio stations while driving.
“Driving an automobile is an extremely complex task,” said Ellicks. “A driver makes 25+ decisions within one mile. You must be focused and present in the moment, particularly as your reaction time and reflexes diminish with age. Today, women tend to live 10 years beyond their safe driving life and men live seven years beyond theirs. The fact is we are likely to live longer than we are safe to drive.”
In addition to the RMV’s Shifting Gears curriculum, seniors may take advantage of several other older driving safety programs. Among them are:
- AARP—offers a 4-hour Driver Safety Class.
- AAA —offers a virtual course called “Roadwise Driver.”
- CarFit.org-AOTA (American Occupational Therapist Association), in conjunction with AAA and AARP—provide training events to help senior drivers adjust their cars to their individual size and needs.
- Local driver education schools—offer driving lessons for people of all ages.
- Hospital driver evaluation programs—Spaulding Rehab in Charlestown, Best Israel Deaconess, the Brockton V.A. and other Greater Boston medical facilities will perform a thorough evaluation of a driver’s vision, reaction time, and physical and cognitive abilities.
“Bear in mind, when renewing your license, that you must report to the RMV any medical limitations that affect your driving,” said Ellicks. “You can discuss getting adaptive equipment for your car (hand controls, swivel seats, pedal extenders, etc.,) with your physician and apply for a disability plate or placard through the Registry.
“Baby boomers are a very big and important part of our population. They need to get to and from jobs, have a social life and take care of grandchildren. Our safe driving courses will help keep them on the move.”
For more details on the RMV Shifting Gears program or to request a seminar at your facility, contact email@example.com.