Resources Available to Gauge Older Drivers’ Safety

With the number of crashes involving older drivers on the rise in Pennsylvania, the departments of Transportation and Insurance remind residents that it’s essential for older drivers and their family members to speak openly about what they’ll do when it is time to hang up the keys for safety’s sake.

“It’s a conversation that most people are not anxious to have, but striking the right balance between safety on our roadways and the mobility of older drivers is a very important subject,” said PennDOT Secretary Allen D. Biehler, P.E.

“Driving is a privilege; however, the loss of that privilege can be devastating for an older driver who is not prepared to accept the change.”

To highlight National Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, Dec. 5-11, the departments urge motorists of all ages to assess and sharpen their driving skills.

Approximately 16 percent of Pennsylvania’s 8.7 million licensed drivers are 65 and older; state data center statistics indicate the number will increase 21 percent by 2020. In 2009, there were more than 16,700 crashes involving a driver 65 and older, resulting in 276 fatalities. This represents 14 percent of the total crashes in Pennsylvania and 22 percent of the fatalities, an increase from previous years.

Although every person ages differently, aging typically brings certain physical, visual and cognitive changes – sometimes subtle – that could impair an older person’s ability to drive safely. Older drivers and their families need to work together to identify potential issues that may affect driving, outline courses of action to assist the older driver, and plan for when it’s time to hang up the keys.

Signs that can indicate it may be time to limit or stop driving altogether include:

  • Feeling uncomfortable, fearful or nervous when driving;
  • Unexplained dents/scrapes on the car, fences, mailboxes or garage doors;
  • Frequently getting lost and frequent “close calls” (i.e. almost crashing);
  • Slower response times, particularly to unexpected situations;
  • Difficulty paying attention to signs or staying in the lane of traffic; and
  • Trouble judging gaps at intersections or highway entrance/exit ramps.

For additional warning signs, safety tips and to download the “Talking with Older Drivers” publication, developed by PennDOT and the Department of Aging, visit PennDOT’s highway safety website, www.DriveSafePA.org, and select the “Mature Driver” link under the Traffic Safety Information Center.

To help older residents assess their ability to drive safely, several free online tools, such as “Roadwise Review,” are available to measure functional driving abilities shown to identify collision risks among older drivers. These self-assessment tools and other resources for older drivers are available at www.seniordrivers.org.

Older drivers can sharpen their driving skills by taking an approved driver improvement course, which may also qualify them for insurance savings.

“Insurance companies recognize that drivers face unique challenges as they get older, and reward those who take the initiative to minimize risk by enrolling in approved driver training courses,” said acting Insurance Commissioner Robert L. Pratter. “Pennsylvania law requires insurance companies to provide at least a five-percent premium discount when policyholders 55 or older have successfully completed an approved driver improvement course.”

Courses are offered statewide and fees vary. A list of organizations offering courses is available at www.DriveSafePA.org, under the “Mature Driver” link.

Individuals must take an approved driver improvement course every three years to remain eligible for the discount and may be disqualified if involved in a chargeable crash, convicted of a moving violation or convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance, which may include prescribed medications.

PennDOT has two programs to help strike the balance between safety and mobility. Under the Medical Reporting Program, the law requires medical professionals to report to PennDOT any person age 15 or older who has been diagnosed with a condition that may impair their ability to drive safely, which could lead to a restricted license or a recall of the driving privilege. In addition, each month PennDOT randomly selects 1,900 drivers over the age of 45 to undergo physical and vision exams at the time of license renewal, and if the results suggest a need, the individual may be required to complete a driver’s exam.

PennDOT also receives reports from law enforcement, and concerned family members and friends, which triggers a review process and possible further exams.

Whether through necessity or mutual agreement with family members, the transition from longtime motorist is a major life change for older Pennsylvanians. PennDOT offers assistance through the Shared-Ride Program, available in every county, and free public transportation for senior citizens.

More information is available at www.PAcommutes.com.