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Safe Driving For Seniors: Officials Get Creative

Thad Seymour, a board member for Independent Transportation Network Orlando, drives other seniors where ever they need to go for less than the cost of a taxi ride. Seymour is 81.

A University of Florida study predicts that within 15 years, a quarter of all drivers in the U.S. will be age 65 and older.

Once they reach the over-75 age bracket, they're more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than any other age group — except teenagers.

So how are officials in states like Florida, which has a huge population of senior citizens, addressing such questions as, can old drivers adopt new driving habits to drive more safely? When should people stop driving? And what should they do after they stop?

Advising Older Drivers, Studying The Roads

Inside a converted garage in Gainesville, Fla., Angela Black is at the wheel of an immobilized Dodge Neon that's connected to a computer. Black, 66, is a volunteer at the University of Florida's Institute for Mobility, Activity and Participation, or I-MAP.

Desiree Lanford, of I-MAP, helps Black get comfortable for the driving simulation. It's one of the tools I-MAP uses to study which skills fade as drivers reach their 70s and 80s.

The windshield of the stationary Neon has been removed, and just beyond it is a three-screen projection of an imaginary highway.

"You notice it's very sensitive," Lanford says as she instructs Black. As Black is taking the test, she drives through a red light. "Oh my goodness," Black says.

I-MAP's mission is to figure out how to make driving easier for seniors. The institute advises older drivers on choosing an age-appropriate car: Think wider mirrors, bigger knobs and a simple dashboard. And its not just interested in car and driver — the group studies the roads, too.

Sherrilene Classen of the institute says researchers have found several features that make one road more older-driver-friendly than another — like a wider shoulder on the road, a protected left-turn lane and a green arrow to give drivers the right of way.

Roads Are So Much More Complicated

AARP is also active in helping older drivers. The organization has put together a video for a course it gives. Seniors who take it can knock some dollars off their car insurance.

Jean Thomas, a retired teacher, and Robert James, a retired law enforcement officer, took the course in Gainesville, Fla. They're both 75.

"I've been driving since I was 14," James says. "I still drive; I even ride a motorcycle. I really think I do pretty good, but it might be better to ask somebody who's driving with me what they thought."

"I think I am a good driver, and I've been told I'm a good driver, but I am more cautious than I used to be," Thomas says.

A few moments later, James puts on his helmet, snaps the chin strap, and gets on his 2007 Suzuki Burgman.

He looks trim and well-fitted to his bike, but a lot of older drivers don't notice how much they have changed physically: How much driving has changed — and what they can do to adjust.

A consultant on senior transportation in Orlando, Fran Carlin Rogers does "car fits" for older drivers and tries to help them cope behind the wheel with some common signs of age.

She asks: "Are you sitting too far forward when you drive, to make up for getting a little shorter?" or "Are you not using a seat belt, because it's tough to reach back that far?"

And, she says, older drivers often need help positioning their rearview mirrors.

"The way mirrors are recommended to be positioned now are dramatically different than the way all of us learned to drive because the roads are so much more complicated," Rogers says. "There's much more traffic than [when] we were young drivers. We really want to have mirrors that are pulled out."

Tattling On Bad Drivers

While these are programs to help older drivers continue driving, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles' grand driver program is about getting older drivers — and other impaired drivers — to stop driving.

Sandra Lambert, who is in charge of drivers' licenses in Tallahassee, Fla., says that people will call her and give confidential tips about who should be scrutinized. The tips might come from a doctor, a neighbor or an adult child — but most often, it's the police.

"Law enforcement officers typically get called to the scene of a crash, even if it's a minor crash, and they observe something with that driver," Lambert says. "There's a section that they can refer that driver for us to take another look."

Another look could mean a new written test, or a new road test. And it means the driver could lose his or her license.

But Lambert says it's not always an either/or, drive-or-don't drive question.

"We want to preserve a senior's dignity and their independence — but we want to have highway safety," she says. "So if we can evaluate a senior — or anyone that's a high-risk driver — and determine that they can go to the doctor, church, because it's a safe driving distance, we can limit their driving. It keeps them from getting into high-risk situations."

Another Alternative

In Orlando, there's another alternative: the Independent Transportation Network. Part of a national organization that started in Maine, it's a co-op that has been running in Orlando for three years. Under the organization, the relationship between passenger and driver is not commercial — it's pretty close to neighborly.

Thaddeus Seymour, the retired president of Rollins College, is a driver for the organization. At 81 years old, he not only picks up and delivers people a few times a week — he also serves on the local ITN board.

Seniors who need rides, like Jane Morrison, set up prepaid personal accounts and get a monthly statement. The rides cost about half what a taxi would. Her decision to stop driving was a combination of medical necessity and discomfort.

The drivers are either volunteers, like Seymour, who take payment in credits for rides they may need in the future — or drivers who do it for cash. He says it's not just about transportation.

"The biggest challenge for older adults is depression, which comes from isolation, which comes from the lack of transportation, the inability to continue the engagement that has been a pattern of their lives."

It is a quality of life question. And, it's also a quantity of life question.

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