- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

The students in Donald Ward’s driving class are going over how to cope with an aggressive driver. Mr. Ward reminds his class that driving demands full attention and to cut down on distractions.

Even after all these years, that is still good advice. Mr. Ward is 87. He has been driving since the 1930s and teaching his class since 1990. The students have nearly as much experience.

Mr. Ward’s class, which meets at Sibley Hospital in Northwest, is part of the AARP Driver Safety program. The students are all older than 50. Most of them say they are taking the class because they can get a discount on their car insurance by completing it. However, they also say they are learning tips that will keep them safely on the roads into their 70s, 80s and beyond.

“I am probably too confident in my driving,” says Anne Jarman, 72, of the District. She recently took the AARP class for the second time.

Mrs. Jarman says she grew up in Tennessee with no driver’s education and “racing my boyfriend’s car.”

“I still drive at night,” she says. “I probably shouldn’t, but I do. Driving is part of being independent. It would be like a death sentence to have your license taken away.”

As the American population has aged, so has the recognition that driving can become a hazard for some older adults. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates the number of drivers older than 65 will double to 40 million by the year 2020.

In general, though, seniors as a group are safe drivers. Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show seniors are less likely to drink and drive than other age groups and kill fewer pedestrians and motorists than any other age group.

However, when seniors do have a crash, their injuries are more likely to be severe, the same report shows. The 75-to-79-year-old age group has a death rate from traffic accidents more than four times as high as that of 30-to-59-year-olds.

The AARP course is one of many resources available to seniors to brush up on safe driving. About 70,000 people nationwide complete the $10 course every year, which saves them about $45 million on car insurance, AARP data shows. Meanwhile, four out of five drivers who complete the two-day, eight-hour course say they have changed their driving as a result.

AAA recently released “Roadwise Review,” a CD-ROM that seniors can use to test their skills on their home computers. “Roadwise Review,” which costs $9.99 for AAA members, tests physical skills such as leg strength (which can affect braking), visual acuity (necessary to recognize road hazards) and memory (much needed for processing information on road signs).

“This is one tool toward keeping your license,” says John Townsend II, manager of government and public relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “The irony is, seniors have been driving longer, but have a high accident fatality rate.”

Recognizing risks

Medical conditions that may affect driving sneak up slowly on seniors, says Dr. Germaine Odenheimer, a neurologist and geriatrician in Oklahoma City. Dr. Odenheimer helps the American Medical Association (AMA) train doctors to recognize factors that could impair driving.

Among the most common:

mLoss of hearing acuity: Hearing difficulties make it hard to hear important signals such as honking horns or screeching tires while driving. Seniors should test their hearing every year to monitor changes.

mLoss of visual acuity: Even if vision is normal or correctable, a common affliction for seniors is loss of contrast sensitivity, which can make it difficult to see at night or in bright sunlight. The AARP recommends keeping tinted sunglasses in the car at all times. An optometrist or ophthalmologist also can test to see how much contrast sensitivity has been lost.

“This takes some self-assessment,” Dr. Odenheimer says. “Unless you become blind quickly, you don’t recognize what is happening.”

• Chronic diseases and impairment: Arthritis, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions can decrease reaction time.

Dr. Odenheimer says conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia should cause older drivers to re-evaluate.

Those close to a senior should carefully monitor drivers whom they suspect might have Alzheimer’s or dementia, says Dr. Odenheimer. Red flags include confusing the gas pedal with the brake, not understanding stop signs, getting lost frequently or going the wrong way down the highway, she says.

mMedications: Many medications might affect driving skills. Older drivers should talk to their doctors about all medications, including over-the-counter drugs.

The AMA the NHTSA recently published a guide to help physicians assess older drivers. In many states, however, doctors are not required to report deficiencies to authorities.

In Maryland, driver’s licenses are renewed every five years and require a vision test. A medical report is only necessary for new drivers older than 70. In Virginia, licenses are renewed every five years and have vision requirements.

In the District, licenses are renewed every five years. After age 70, the driver must present a note from his doctor saying he is physically and mentally capable to drive. After age 75, a written note and road test may be required for some drivers.

Staying safe

No doubt about it, driving has changed, say the participants in the safe driving class at Sibley Hospital. Roads are more crowded than ever, and people are in a hurry and talking on cell phones.

One student brings in her “homework.” Her assignment: to show the class a hands-free device for a cell phone. She points out to the class the recent law that makes talking and driving illegal in the District unless the driver is using a headset.

John Barnett, 75, says he has been driving since 1945. Mr. Barnett, of the District, recently took the AARP class. He reminisced about his first car, a 1929 Ford with a rumble seat.

“It was a fun car,” Mr. Barnett says. “Driving is not as much fun now. It is a task, not a pleasure. You’ve got to be on your toes all the time. The roads are the same, but they are much more crowded.”

The students settle in to watch a video detailing the small changes that could impact driving. Cataracts, glaucoma and other vision problems are discussed. A gasp goes through the group when the lens shows what it is like to drive with macular degeneration — a big, black spot would be right in the middle of your field of vision.

Mr. Ward says everyone can use a refresher — even if those who have been driving for decades.

“My mission is to keep us going,” says Mr. Ward, who enjoys driving his Chrysler PT Cruiser. “I probably get into the right lane more these days. Let the rest of the drivers get in the left lane and pass me.”

More info:

Associations —

• AARP, 601 E Street NW, Washington, DC 20049. Phone: 888/687-2277. Web site: www.aarp.org/life/drive. This nonprofit advocacy group has many resources for older drivers, including information about its driver safety classes.

• AAA Mid-Atlantic, 701 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20005. Phone: 202/331-3000. Web site: www.aaamidatlantic. com. Local AAA offices have information on safe driving for seniors. The CD-ROM “Roadwise Review: A Tool to Help Seniors Drive Safely Longer” also is available for purchase ($9.99 for members, $15 for nonmembers).

Online —

• The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.dot.gov/) has statistics, research and safe-driving information on its Web site. There also is a paper, “Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully,” available on the site.

• The American Occupational Therapy Association (www.aota.org/olderdriver), a professional association, has tips for safe driving, assessment tools and other resources for older drivers on its Web site.

• Senior Drivers (www.seniordrivers.org), a site sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, has information for safe driving and community resources to help seniors who no longer drive.

• Neighbor Ride, a nonprofit transportation program for Howard County seniors, has a Web site (www.neighborride. org). The group also can be reached at 410/884-RIDE.

• The Hartford Insurance Co. has a guide to talking to older family members about driving (www.thehartford.com/talkwitholderdrivers/) as well as a worksheet to identify the warning signs of dangerous driving.

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