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Classes help keep senior citizens safe behind the wheel

| Thursday, July 18, 2002

Catherine Naughton, 80, of West View doesn't let her age keep her from driving.

"I go to the mall and to get groceries," she said. "My son lives in Hopewell, so I visit him sometimes, too. Some older people are bad drivers, and we get a bad reputation from a few of them. I can drive in both day and night."

As more Americans enter their so-called "golden years," others question their driving abilities, fearing they are prone to accidents because of failing eyesight, slowed reaction time and loss of physical strength.

AARP spokeswoman Angela Foreshaw said the organization developed a driver safety program called 55 Alive in response to criticism of older drivers but added that many older drivers get a bad rap unfairly.

Only 1.4 percent of drivers older than 65 were involved in traffic accidents in 2000, according to PennDOT statistics. That is the lowest among age groups and compares with a 5.5 percent rate for drivers 16 to 24 years old.

Only when fatality rates are used do older drivers appear more involved than members of other age groups. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a driver older than 80 is four times more likely than a 20-year-old to die in a traffic accident. That is attributed to the frailness of older drivers.

In Allegheny County, 17.8 percent of the residents are older than 65, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Statewide, 15.6 percent are in that category, compared with 12.4 percent nationwide. By 2030, one in every five Americans will be 65 as the baby boom generation ages, a government study projects.

As the U.S. population ages, more elderly drivers are on the road, leading to suggestions of mandatory testing.

Older drivers shouldn't feel the first and only option is to give up the keys, though. The Western Pennsylvania Safety Council, AAA and AARP offer refresher courses for those drivers who think their knowledge of the rules of the road could use a tune-up. The courses, usually consisting of two, four-hour classes and offered in locations throughout the region, allow seniors to get a state-mandated minimum 5 percent discount on insurance.

"Our class is important because it not only reviews rules, it makes them realize how age impacts them," Western Pennsylvania Safety Council President Roger Christensen said. "Some of these people have never had a driver education course."

Ross Township police Chief Greg Tenos said older drivers aren't any worse than teenage drivers.

"We get complaints about younger and older drivers," he said. "But I don't think it's a big problem. Sometimes neighbors or people call and we may dispatch a car, but it's rare."

Naughton bought a new 1996 Honda Accord seven years ago when she was 73 years old.

"My sister — she's 81 — always asks me, 'Aren't you afraid to drive?' and I say no. I taught my two sons to drive," Naughton said. "So far, I haven't taken any classes, but I've seen them."

Older drivers crash most often when failing to yield to traffic while merging, not responding properly to stop signs and traffic lights or making unsafe turns, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Those types of accidents, according to Kevin McNeill, a geriatric social worker at Mercy Hospital, happen because of aging. McNeill said visual changes, hearing, reaction time and physical strength significantly deteriorate as people age.

"Physical strength is important to have total control of the car," McNeill said. "It's important for quick maneuvering and backing up."

McNeill said perhaps mandatory testing should be considered.

"I think as people get older, say 80, it's something they may want to look at," he said.

But don't expect mandatory testing from the state any time soon.

"We may have looked at that option, but we believe the programs we have in place are effective," PennDOT spokeswoman Joan Nissley said. "There may have been rumblings from the Legislature, but we don't think there's a need."

In Pennsylvania, doctors are required to report any condition that could affect driving ability to PennDOT. Then, based on the report submitted, restrictions to a license may be added, the license may be revoked or a person might have to pass a driving test. However, only a small percentage of patients are reported to the state.

PennDOT randomly chooses 1,650 drivers older than 45 at the time of renewal and requires them to have a physical examination and also monitors police crash reports and accepts letters from families concerned about a relative's driving ability.

The state recommends that senior citizens take one of the approved driver refresher courses.

Bevi Norris, director of public affairs for the local AAA region, said the program updates seniors on new driving technology.

"Things they may never have been taught are discussed in these classes," Norris said. "Antilock brakes and how far to sit back from an air bag are some things discussed in the classes. We also talk about driving ability and monitoring medication.

"We find they're very good at monitoring their own abilities. If they know they can't see well in the dark, then they make sure they get their groceries in the day."

Illinois is the only state that requires testing for older drivers. Drivers older than 75 must take a road test when they renew their license. Other states, including Pennsylvania, can place restrictions on licenses or can require tests because of poor driving records. Some states, including Illinois, require licenses to be renewed more frequently for older drivers — every year or two instead of every four years.

While many seniors oppose mandatory testing. Felix Bejger, 55, of Plum said at a recent driving class in Monroeville it might be a good idea.

"I don't think it would hurt," Bejger said. "If you're capable of driving, then why not take a test?"

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