It’s no secret that Maine boasts one of the oldest populations of any state in the nation, second only to Florida’s. So it stands to reason that we also have a high percentage of older drivers behind the wheel, on our back roads, byways and interstate highways. In fact, according to statistics from the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, of the 953,927 Mainers who held a valid Class C driver license here last year, 134,432 — up from 125,705 in 2014 — were 70 or older. This segment of drivers will grow in coming years as the baby boom generation ages and then gradually subside.
Driving is so central to maintaining independence, especially in a rural state like Maine, so many seniors are deeply reluctant to give up their keys. Even concerned family members, neighbors, doctors and others in the community may find it very difficult to raise the safety issue with an older driver, understanding the deep implications of losing the right to drive.
“It’s very difficult, because the public transportation alternatives [in Maine] are not great,” occupational therapist and rehabilitative driving instructor Heather Shields of Brunswick said. “At the same time, we don’t want people out there who shouldn’t be driving.”
But the graying of the driver population is a phenomenon that’s happening in every state, and cultural institutions are responding. Before older Mainers hang up their keys for good, there are several options to help them stay safely behind the wheel.
Drive the right car
Normal aging often causes changes in eyesight and hearing, diminishes memory and slows reaction times. Familiar roadways may be widened or straightened and sport new signage, striping and surprising features such as roundabouts and center turning lanes. And cars change, most notably by incorporating new technologies to enhance safety and improve efficiency.
“We help people to become more aware of these changes and deal with them effectively so they can safely drive on the roads and in our communities,” Court Dwyer, volunteer state coordinator for AARP’s driver safety programs, said.
For some, there can be comfort in newer vehicle safety features.
Consumer Reports recently published a list of the “ Top 25 New Cars for Senior Drivers.” The Subaru Forester and Subaru Outback, sometimes referred to as Maine’s unofficial state cars because of their popularity here, grabbed the top two spots on the list, thanks in part to the inclusion of a dashboard-mounted backup camera as standard equipment. The Kia Soul ranked third. Fourth is another popular Subaru model, the Legacy. Fifth is the Kia Sportage.
In addition to the backup camera, senior-friendly factors in the Consumer Reports ranking included ease of front-seat access for those with mobility limitations, visibility in all directions for drivers of all heights, easy-to-read controls for functions such as changing gears and adjusting temperature and more powerful headlamps to improve nighttime road visibility. Popular optional safety features such as automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning and a blind-spot warning light that blinks when another vehicle is approaching to pass were also factored into the ranking.
Features such as these can help protect older drivers, their passengers and the communities where they live and travel, Dwyer said. But, he said, many older drivers are doing just fine without them.
“For the most part, seniors are very safe drivers, with decades of experience,” he said. Still, the four-hour Smart Driver classes AARP offers at sites across Maine draw a healthy participation from folks 50 and older. “The strongest reason [they sign up] is that they get a discount on their insurance,” he said. But most participants come away having learned new skills as well.
Dwyer, who is 69 and retired, said AARP driving classes focus on three areas of change. “There are changes in ourselves, changes in the roads we’re driving on and changes in the cars we’re driving,” he said.
AARP also also offers a “We Need to Talk” program aimed at helping friends and family members open a conversation about driver safety with an aging loved one. The organization will soon offer scheduled opportunities to help Maine seniors adjust their car seats, mirrors and other moveable parts to best suit their comfort and safety. And in 2018, Dwyer said, the organization’s “CarTek” program will review new vehicle safety equipment to help seniors understand how they work and determine if they’re worth paying extra for. All these programs are led by volunteers, Dwyer said, and AARP is seeking more people to teach individual classes.
Get a professional perspective
When AARP sessions aren’t enough, some older Maine drivers and their families turn to Shields, the Brunswick occupational therapist and state-certified driving instructor. The owner of Pathways Rehabilitation Driving Services, she travels across the state to work with drivers of all ages who need professional help staying behind the wheel safely.
“I’m the only licensed rehabilitative driving instructor in the state,” she said. “I work with a lot of people who already know how to drive but who have a medical condition that has affected their ability to drive.”
Many age-related conditions can affect driving, including Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, amputations and stroke. Shields said people can learn to compensate for these and other physical changes using adaptive technologies like raised foot pedals, left-foot accelerators, hand controls, extended turn-signal levers, specialized mirrors and other devices.
Shields is also available to counsel older drivers and concerned family members about problems that are not so readily solved, such as when mild dementia, deteriorating vision, slowed processing and response, impaired judgement and other cognitive changes indicate it may be time to retire from driving altogether.
She bases her professional assessment on a series of steps that includes a family conversation, a home visit, a personal interview, a vision test and paper-and-pencil exercises that test cognitive processing skills.
“Then we go out and drive,” Shields said. “We use my car because it has an instructor’s brake.” She observes the driver’s responses to traffic, signage, pedestrians in the familiar areas around their homes.
“Then we come home and talk about it,” she said. “I give them my feedback. If there are concerns about their driving performance, I can make connections to the testing, their family’s concerns and previous driving incidents. I help connect the dots.” Sometimes, she is able to make recommendations to improve the driver’s safety and comfort behind the wheel. Sometimes not.
Shields works with families to help their loved ones understand the need to stop driving. And, if she has concerns, she reports her findings to the driver’s physician, who in turn, may report them to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. DMV, at its discretion, may call the driver in for a screening and revoke their license, if it’s warranted.
Rules governing older drivers vary from state to state. Maine law requires that drivers have a vision test on the first license renewal after turning 40 years of age, at every second renewal after 40 and at every renewal after turning 62.
Beyond that, older drivers here are subject to a complex set of provisions related to specific medical and cognitive disorders that apply to drivers of all ages. Review of an individual driver’s competency can be triggered by reporting from a medical professional, a law enforcement agency or a concerned citizen and is conducted by a medical advisory board within the bureau of motor vehicles.
“A lot of people self-limit their driving as they age,” Shields said. “They don’t drive at night or in unfamiliar places. But the people who say, ‘Oh, I’m fine. I can drive to Boston’ — they’re the ones you have to worry about.”