Driving & old age

Posted Jan. 02, 2009, at 8:24 p.m.

“State police in Greater Bangor have had to contend with two cases of confused wrong-way elderly drivers in recent weeks. A woman drove her car 13 miles on Interstate 95 in the wrong lane before police could get her to pull over. Troopers had shut down traffic on the Interstate to avoid putting other motorists at risk. Last week, a 78-year-old man on oxygen drove his car the wrong way on the Stillwater Avenue exit in Bangor and collided with a second car on the Interstate. The other driver walked away from the head-on crash. The elderly man, whose license has been taken away for medical reasons, was injured in the crash.”

— Maine Public Safety Bulletin, Dec. 15

In a rural state such as Maine, with scanty public transportation and miles of rural back roads, a license to operate a motor vehicle can mean the difference between independence and isolation, particularly for the elderly. Grocery shopping, picking up a new prescription, taking the cat to the vet, getting to a church supper and staying afterward for a few games of bingo, visiting the grandchildren — it all hinges on being able to get out the driveway.

“Especially in rural Maine, there are no other options. If they’re not driving, they’re really isolated,” said Dr. Allen Currie, an internal medicine practitioner and chief of medical services at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. In a recent interview, Currie said he, like most primary care physicians, is confronted several times a year by concerned family members of his elderly patients, asking him to intervene in the tricky process of getting their loved one out from behind the wheel.

“But then the patient typically says, ‘I’m perfectly capable of driving,’” Currie said. “That puts the physician in a very difficult position.”

Maine’s population is among the oldest in the nation, and so it stands to reason that its drivers are aging, too. According to statistics from the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles, in 1998 there were 91,702 licensed drivers over the age of 70 in Maine. By 2002, the number had risen to 102,619. And in 2007, elderly drivers ac-counted for 110,616 of Maine licenses.

By 2030, one out of every four drivers in the United States will be 65 or older, according to national statistics.

Despite the growing number of elderly drivers in Maine, they account for only a small percentage of moving violations. Like younger motorists, older drivers are cited for speeding, not wearing their seat belts, allowing their registrations and inspection stickers to lapse, and running the occasional stop sign or red light. Men are more likely than women to commit these infractions.

The big difference between the elderly and the rest of the population, according to Currie, is that the elderly often do not realize their driving skills are deteriorating. Age-related problems such as slowed thinking and reaction times, impaired judgment, physical limitations due to arthritis and other disorders can set in without the driver’s awareness, he said, setting the stage for a tragedy.

On the other hand, Currie noted, many drivers in their 80s and 90s are very safe and capable of operating their vehicles, particularly if they drive during the day and stay primarily in familiar areas.

Doctors and police are among the few people who can directly recommend that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles test a driver, according to Robert O’Connell, director of driver license services for the bureau. Even then, he said, it’s up to the Secretary of State’s Office to determine who undergoes special testing and who doesn’t.

Other than the 16-year minimum age to receive one’s initial driver’s license, O’Connell said, there are few age-based rules or regulations regarding driving eligibility. That’s because there is such variation in how people age, as well as factors other than age that can impair driving skills.

In 1995, a special legislative task force was charged with examining the mobility needs of Maine’s senior citizens, O’Connell said, including a review of the adequacy of existing rules for assessing the competency of older drivers. After a series of statewide hearings, about the only change adopted was shortening the interval between license renewals from six years to four years after age 62 and requiring a vision check with each renewal. If additional testing is determined to be needed, drivers may face a written exam and a road test, as well as a vision check.

Currie said that while it may be a hard decision, the choice to give up driving -— or having the decision determined by others — is often the only safe and responsible alternative. And for many seniors, he said, a deterioration in driving skills may be a sign that other abilities are on the wane and a signal to be on the lookout for more changes ahead.

Drivers and their loved ones with concerns about safety have some options. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles will retest any driver who requests it. And AARP, the advocacy organization for seniors, offers an online driver safety class as well as some classroom locations.

Fore more information:

AARP in Maine: 866-554-5380

www.aarp.org/families/driver_safety

Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles: 624-9000

www.maine.gov/sos/contact/index.html

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