Older drivers fuel worry

Seniors, families offered advice on how to know it's time to give up the car keys

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photoThe Wichita Eagle files Tim Ladwig color illustration of an elderly gentleman at the steering-wheel of a car.

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Helping your parents determine whether they should still be driving can be stressful -- especially for Mom and Dad. No one wants to lose a freedom they've had for nearly as long as they can remember. On the other hand, they also don't want to hurt someone, or themselves, while behind the wheel of a car.

While seniors often get a bad rap for their driving abilities, Brian Thomas, president of the Akron, Ohio, AAA, maintains that they are the safest drivers on the road.

"That's because of one thing -- experience," Thomas said. "Teens, for instance, are at much greater risk on the road because of their lack of experience. People get upset with older drivers because they are driving slow and taking their time. Yeah, they are being pretty safe."

Additionally, seniors tend to drive familiar routes, and not after dark.

Still, Thomas said, mature drivers need to do a self-check of their skills.

"If you are an older driver, and every time you go out, people are honking and mad at you -- that's a signal" maybe you shouldn't be on the road, Thomas added.

AAA maintains that age should never be used as the sole indicator of driving ability, though it's typical for some skills that are necessary for safe driving, such as vision, reflexes, flexibility and hearing, to begin to deteriorate with age.

If there is some concern about whether an elderly person should continue driving, AAA has an online source that might help. The driver should visit http://seniordriving.aaa.com to take a 15-question self-evaluation with facts and suggestions. And if that shows a potential threat, perhaps the person will agree to an evaluation by AAA.

Bill Biasella is a training manager at Akron's AAA and evaluates the driving of older folks. The former police officer explained that those who have suffered some kind of medical condition, or those stopped by the police for a driving infraction, may be told that they need to have their driving evaluated. Generally they are the most cooperative because the request is not coming from their kid, whom they might still see as a pimple-faced teenager. The doctor or a police officer is a third, neutral party.

"You can't force somebody to do (the evaluation) unless you have legal guardianship," noted Kevin Thomas, vice president at Akron's AAA and Brian's brother.

Certainly, AAA isn't trying to force it on anyone. From the moment the person walks through the door, Biasella said, he tries to make him or her comfortable.

"I explain that I'm not here to take away their driving rights," Biasella said.

A gentleman who came in last summer for an evaluation had glaucoma. Though he had a medical release from his doctor stating that his vision would pass the Florida driver's license eye exam, the kids were still nervous. Pop passed with flying colors.

"Voluntarily, he … had an evaluation. I call it 'make (the children) smile and shut them up,'" Biasella said, grinning.

"A lot of times it's the children of the parent who gets the news they didn't want to hear. And that is that their parent passed the test and are OK drivers," Kevin Thomas added.

But it's not always that easy. Sometimes Mom and Dad need to relinquish their keys, but are worried about what happens if they do. Some, rightfully so, think it means an end to their activities, that they will be reduced to occasional visits from friends, family and health care aides, and that life as they know it is about to end.

A growing number of families will have to deal with the issue as baby boomers age. And

boomers as a whole might cop an unprecedented attitude when the subject is broached. As noted by the Mature Drivers Task Force in Pennsylvania, today's mature drivers may be a little old lady in a convertible or a graying guy on a Harley.

"Mature drivers today have changing attitudes and different needs than those who came of age on our highways years ago," notes the task force's website.

To address the older folks' concerns that they'll be doomed to a boring sedentary lifestyle, Brian Thomas said to plan how your loved one will get around after his or her license is retired. In addition to family and friends committing to providing transportation, explore public services.

In the end, if Mom and Dad's budget allows, they may need to move to a retirement community where activities are on the grounds and a shuttle taxis them to dinner, shopping -- and for the spunky boomers, maybe the tattoo parlor.