April 1, 2013

Seniors, Cars, and Safety

Yes, that's my car after a bad crash in August, 2011.

Naturally, I was interested to see a recent article titled “Being an Older, Safer Driver” in the Berkeley Wellness e-zine from the University of California. It reminded me how lucky I was to survive two crashes two years ago. That second mishap (picture above) sent me to the hospital for a couple days, and left me with lingering back pain I’m still working on.

Even so, I thank my lucky stars the damage wasn’t greater. And – here’s the tough part – I wonder if I should continue to drive, even though I limit my trips to short daytime excursions along quiet neighborhood streets I know well. I ask friends who ride with me if they have concerns about my driving. So far, I've heard only reassurances that I'm doing fine.

The article I mentioned cited an Australian study in which drivers aged 70-88 motored along city and suburban streets, with an instructor in the passenger’s seat and an observer in the back. Not surprisingly, the older the driver, the more frequent the mistakes. Their errors included failing to check blind spots, veering across lanes, failing to use turn signals, and braking quickly without apparent cause. 

Here’s a scary outcome: almost 20% of those senior drivers made such serious errors that their instructors had to intervene in order to prevent a possible accident.

There are many obvious factors in play here. Safe driving requires good eyesight, good hearing, good mobility, quick thinking, and good reaction time. If any single ability is compromised, there is danger. If multiple faculties are involved, the chances of harm – including death -- coming to driver and others are greatly increased.

We all love the sense of independence that driving brings us – going anywhere at any time, without the inconvenience and delay of relying on friends or public transportation… or the cost of using taxicabs. But are we really fit to drive? Do the easy licensing requirements really protect us? Is it all worth the risk we create for ourselves and others?

The Berkeley article suggested asking these questions to see if there are any red flags:
  • Do you rely on mirrors when merging or changing lanes instead of fully turning to check blind spots? 
  • Do you have trouble seeing pedestrians or cars at night? 
  • Do you ever have trouble braking? 
  • Do you react slowly to a siren or flashing emergency lights on the road? 
  • Are you receiving frequent traffic tickets? 
  • Do drivers frequently honk at you? (Can you hear them if they do?) 
  • Have you been involved in any crashes or near-misses in the past two years? 
I do OK on these questions... until the last  one. ("Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?")

For my own checklist, and AAA’s tips for older drivers: click here.

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