Auto safety courses target aging drivers

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Richard Evans hops in his Buick LaCrosse and motors around Montgomery County to teach five or six AARP driving classes every year. When he lived in Bethesda 10 years ago, he began giving refresher courses to retirees with vision and hearing problems. And compared to many of his students, Evans, 84, is a seasoned roadster.
”I’ve seen people I don’t think should drive,” Evans said. ”They can see all right, but they go in there and get a new driver’s license that’s good for five years.”
This can be a problem, he said, when the licensee is almost 100 years old.

One in five automobile accidents in Montgomery County in 2005 involved drivers who were 55 or older, according to the most recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records. Drivers over age 69 accounted for more than 10 percent of all Montgomery County accidents that year. All accidents involving people older than 74 resulted in incapacitating injuries or death.

”The risk to seniors is primarily to themselves,” said Shawn Brennan, program manager for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services aging and disability unit. ”If they get in an accident, they’re more prone to injury or death.”

In Bethesda, 12 percent of people living alone are older than 65, according to U.S. Census data. So it is incumbent on many of these older drivers to recognize if they are a danger to themselves and others on the road.

While Washington, D.C., requires older drivers to pass written and road tests every five years before they get behind the wheel, Maryland’s rules are more relaxed. A 75-year-old driver must only pass a vision test before getting a license renewed, no different from the screening a 25-year-old driver faces.

”Somewhere along in there, I think it would be good to have some further tests” for aging drivers, Evans said.

But aging does not automatically result in unsafe driving, according to Jeffrey W. Elias, program officer at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda. Elias said age-related concern could be applied just as easily to young, inexperienced drivers.

”You could come up with a test for people who would have a lot of problems driving, but it would also catch people who do not have problems,” Elias said. ”For some 70-year-olds, that would be a good idea, and for others it would be an insult.”

Evans said typical clues that an older driver is unsafe include daydreaming, getting lost, scrapes on the side of a car and slow reaction time.

Along with Evans’ AARP safe driving classes, a handful of local programs have cropped up recently “” pairing with county and national organizations “” to fill in the safety gap.

Suburban Hospital in Bethesda began a seniors-oriented driver screening service two and a half years ago, when occupational therapists and Suburban doctors identified a growing need for rigorous driver screening within the community.

The program is manned entirely by one occupational therapist, Theresa Robbins, who takes two patients each week through a two- to three-hour process testing a driver’s vision, cognitive ability and brake reaction time. Afterward, seniors are sent to a behind-the-wheel test proctored by Suburban affiliates including Johns Hopkins University.

Seniors who have fixable problems can have their vehicles fitted with adjustments to make driving safer, like left foot accelerators if the right leg is not strong enough, or extra rearview mirrors. If the test picks up on serious problems, like dementia, seniors are asked to head straight for the local MVA and give up their driver’s licenses.

”If they refuse, we do have to report them,” Robbins said.

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