Senior drivers: an annoyance, safety concern or best drivers on the road?

Story and photo by Paige Fieldsted

Seniors on the road is something everyone seems to have an opinion about.

Some say older people should have their driver’s licenses taken away completely. Others think seniors’ driving should just be monitored more closely. Still another group believes seniors are the best drivers on the road.

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Seniors represent 9 percent of the drivers on the road but account for 11 percent of people involved crashes. Senior drivers also make up 11 percent of people involved in fatal accidents.

Although many cite slow driving as the main reason for wanting seniors off the road, are older drivers really posing a risk to other travelers?

According to the 2007 Utah Crash Summary, senior drivers accounted for 10 percent of all crashes and 11 percent of all people involved in accidents.

Sgt. David Moreno of the Utah Highway Patrol said seniors driving the wrong direction on freeways, ramps and other roads is the No. 1 reason for calls involving seniors.

“If we pull someone over going the wrong way, we take their license away,” Moreno said. “We send their license to the driver’s license division where they have to pass a driving test to get it back.”

While seniors (age 65 and older) represented the age group with the smallest number of people in crashes, they were 2.4 times more likely to die in a crash than any other age group.

Accidents caused by health-related issues such as heart attack were the second-highest reason for senior-related calls, Moreno said.

Emily Daines, whose 85-year-old grandfather and 77-year-old grandmother still drive themselves around, said driving with them can be a scary thing.

“I went with my grandpa to a family event this summer, and he nearly got us hit because he assumed a two-way stop was a four-way,” Daines said.

Daines’ other grandma is no longer driving, so she and her parents are responsible for taking her places. Although it is an inconvenience, Daines said it is a necessary precaution.

“Grandma is resentful that she is no longer driving, but she simply doesn’t have the reflexes or the memory to remember where she’s going or how to get home,” Daines said. “It was at that point we knew we had to take the keys.”

There are programs designed to help seniors retain their driving skills and keep them independent longer.

Drivability Adventures in Daily Living, located in Sandy, Utah, is just one of those programs. Paulette Welch, an occupational therapist at Drivability, said not being able to drive reduces quality of life.

“The biggest concern we have is that the senior will not seek driving rehabilitation in time to improve their driving skills and will lose their independence,” Welch said. “The other concern is that some seniors continue to drive thinking that they are fine, but they are unable to learn new skills or change driving behavior.”

Moreno said there is no requirement to repass the driving test in order to keep a license once an individual reaches a certain age. Further, each senior is evaluated on an individual basis when pulled over. He added that without a mandatory retesting age for driver’s licenses in Utah, families should help in keeping unsafe seniors off the roads.

“Family should be involved,” Moreno said. “Families should be really aware and take action as needed.”

Daines said based on the experience she’s had with her grandparents, she feels that having laws in place requiring seniors to pass driving and eyesight tests at a certain age is something that should be implemented.

“I do think they should have to pass a test,” Daines said. “I think lumping people together as unable to drive just because they hit a certain age seems like a blanket judgment, that is a poor idea.”

Welch disagreed, saying that putting such a law in place would amount to age discrimination.

“I am not in favor of such discrimination,” she said. “There are people of all ages that are dangerous drivers.”

Welch did say, however, that if senior drivers are unable to learn new skills and change their driving behavior, they shouldn’t be on the road.

Moreno said that implementation of a senior driving test is not something that is of concern to the highway patrol.

“For now we don’t have the data showing that they are a big enough hazard,” Moreno said. “Teenagers are where all of our energy and focus is right now.”