The first commercially available automobile became available with the creation of the Model T in 1908. By the 1950s, construction had started on the national highway system to connect the country by road—just in time for the Boomers to come of legal age to drive. The Baby Boomer generation’s fascination with the automobile prompted motels, drive thru eateries and hour-long work commutes. Perhaps because that fascination is threatened now by the Boomers’ aging bodies, at no other time has there been as much emphasis on driver safety as now.
Part of the impetus for this is the belief that older drivers are prone to more accidents. See a previous article on that topic here. The actual number of accidents decreases as drivers age until they reach their mid-70s. Much of the collective reflex has been directed at having the conversation with a parent about giving up his or her license. Given that as a nation, we continue to live, work and entertain in a manner that requires individuals be car dependent, that conversation has often resembled an all out war on independence rather than a conversation about safety concerns.
This month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its five-year safety plan for older drivers and it’s looking to change that conversation to one about behavior and technology changes that can help to keep the older driver in the driver’s seat for years to come.
We’ve come a long way since the first safety features of reinforced doors, safety glass, flexible fenders and turn signals. Today, newer model cars often come equipped with blind spot warning systems, backup cameras, headlights that automatically adjust the range and intensity of light to improve night vision, collision alert systems to provide audible and visual signals if a collision might be imminent, lane departure warning and an enhanced rear park assist. Some cars will even slow the vehicle automatically. Other technologies already available include alerts to let drivers know if they are becoming inattentive and cars that offer stability control for harsh weather.
In the future, the Department of Transportation is working with automobile manufacturers to create systems that will allow cars to talk to other cars, traffic signals, work zones and other areas to increase the driver’s knowledge of potential problems. The agency is also looking at upgrading its New Car Assessment Program and has included a proposal to include a new “Silver” rating system for older drivers.
A driver doesn’t have to be all that advanced in age to have uncorrected poor driving habits become their norm rather than the exception. That’s why if there’s any doubt about a driver’s ability to operate a vehicle, regardless of age, it’s a good idea to get a refresher course on driving.
When someone senses that a loved one’s driving ability is not up to par, there’s a knee jerk reaction to take the keys away. It’s not always the right decision and can create a downhill slide that is difficult to get out of. One way to get an unbiased look at a person’s ability to drive is to hire a driving rehabilitation specialist or an occupational therapist. These individuals have specialized training and can observe how well drivers are able to maneuver feet, hands, head and shoulders while operating a vehicle. They are also able to recommend ways to limit risks so that drivers can continue to safely operate a vehicle. They can help create a plan for a time for when an individual will no longer be in the driver’s seat so that the aspects of life making it possible to continue to live as independently and as socially as possible are tailored to the individual.
Teresa Valois is an occupational therapist with CHC Services in Mountlake Terrace. She can help individuals explore ways to address any deficits they might have so they can continue driving or in some cases can be the voice of reason should it be necessary for an older driver to give up the keys. Valois helped developed the program at the University of Washington’s Driving Rehabilitation Program (the UW program emphasis is on people with disabilities but they too can help with older drivers) and has decades of experience working with drivers who may have obstacles due to a stroke, amputation or age.
Valois begins an assessment by looking at the medical history of a client and then she goes to the client’s home and runs through a series of tests. If it’s obvious at this point that the client should not be driving, she has a conversation with the client and makes recommendations that they give up the keys, however, her recommendations are not set in stone nor does the written documentation she gives the client end up in a DMV file. She simply lays out why they can’t continue to drive without sounding like someone laying down the law. If instead, the client is not obviously a hazard on the road, she goes for a test drive with the client. Some driving can be improved by remedies such as adjusting mirrors, steering wheels or vehicle height or even exercises, other individuals may need more specialized adaptive equipment or driving restrictions such as limiting night time or freeway driving. CHC Services start at about $520 and include Valois’ travel time.
Here’s a list of programs that offer services for individuals 65 and over in the Seattle-Tacoma area:
Valley Medical Center-Rehab Services in Renton
(425) 228-3440 ext 5165
Assistive Technology Solutions in Issaquah
University of Washington Medical Center Rehabilitation Medicine
Northwoods Lodge in Silverdale
CHC Services in Mountlake Terrace