End of the road

October 10, 2012 • Editorial

Ask a senior citizen how it feels to permanently surrender one’s car keys, and you’ll likely get a look of resentment, if not despair.
The dreaded no-driving milestone, often accompanied by isolation and a sense of lost independence, is a common point of conflict. The issue pits individuals’ need for mobility against the public’s concern for safety.

Ideally, drivers would recognize when their skills are slipping and give up the keys voluntarily. But the step is often involuntary, brought on by traffic citations, failed driving tests or diagnosed health issues, such as dementia.

The latter cause can be problematic in early stages, because these same seniors may have accident-free driving records. Revoking their license based on the fear of what might [auth] happen to them is not to be taken lightly, especially if alternative transportation is scarce or hard to access.

Advanced age tends to impair vision and reflexes — critical to safe driving — but the effects vary by person. Many elderly manage with strategies such as avoiding nighttime driving and major highways. Per miles traveled, however, motorists 75 and older who are involved in a crash are more likely to die from their injuries — a reflection of seniors’ greater physical frailty. Statistics also show that the elderly are more likely to be involved in accidents at intersections, particularly during left turns.

Some of these factors can and should be addressed by better traffic design, clearer signage and stronger lighting. Federal highway officials consider such improvements to be a high priority, although states have lagged on implementation. That is unfortunate, because the changes would enhance road safety for all drivers, regardless of age.

Another important pursuit on the elder-driving front is research to provide more reliable evaluative tools.

Many states utilize various safety assessments for older drivers, but there is surprisingly little agreement that these screenings have brought the desired results. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that “there is insufficient evidence on the validity and reliability of any driving assessment or screening tool,” the Government Accountability Office noted in a 2007 report.

Encouragingly, several threads of research are under way to find more reliable screening measures. Establishing a set of scientifically valid standards would give authorities a valuable tool to complement what are now primarily subjective evaluations.

No discussion of senior driving issues should ignore transit and urban planning. For people who can no longer drive, convenient, accessible public transportation can provide essential mobility and help them maintain quality of life.

Good urban planning, meanwhile, can discourage sprawl, which imposes hardships on people who cannot drive, and create a safer pedestrian experience.

What must be emphasized in all this is that the challenges of elder driving aren’t just for individuals or families; they are communitywide, and will grow as the large baby boomer cohort ages.

Guest Editorial

The Panama City News Herald

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