Elderly Drivers and Safety in New Hampshire

Aging doesn’t equal loss of skill behind the wheel.

You could say that Gerald deRepentigny has been around the block a few times. At 93 years old, he has been driving more than three-quarters of a century, since he was 15 years old. His first car, a 1933 Dodge, cost him $75. Then there was his brand new 1939 Buick Special a few years later he remembers so well because “it was so beautiful,” he says. Since then, though, he’s owned too many cars to keep track. “I’ve driven all my life,” he adds. “I know driving.”

Indeed, most of the jobs deRepentigny has had have involved driving in some capacity. His first job, in 1936 at age 16, was at a summer camp picking up mail and supplies in the camp pickup truck. In the service he drove tanks and flatbed trucks for disabled tanks. He then became a fireman, driving a fire truck for 28 years before retiring in 1973. Following the fire department, he worked for 14 years at Andover Tractor Trailer School, crisscrossing the state teaching students how to drive big rigs. Then it was sales (vacuums and hearing aids) and, at age 68, he got a job as a courier for ADP, logging 50,000 miles a year for more than a decade. “I drove and I drove and I drove,” he says.

Today, deRepentigny stays closer to home. From the house that he shares with his wife, Irene, just off of South Willow Street in Manchester, most everything he needs is a short drive away.

"Driving is such an important aspect to a person’s independence."

According to current projections from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, by 2025 more than a quarter of drivers on the road will be over 65. Studies show that this group is one of the safest demographics behind the wheel — their overall crash rate is just about the same as that of 20-to-30-year-old drivers. But while younger drivers tend to get into accidents because of a lack of judgment, older people tend to get into accidents because of deterioration — whether it’s reflexes, eyesight, stiff muscles or skills. Confusion or dementia may also play a part for some. Fatal crash rates for seniors also tend to go up around age 75, but mainly because seniors tend to be more fragile, so they tend to get injured or die more from chest injuries and other medical complications in those accidents.

New Hampshire has no special provisions about seniors and their driving — they can renew every five years like everyone else — because the law requiring a road test requirement for those 75 and older was repealed in 2011 after an 86-year-old state legislator said it was discriminatory. This year, however, the Legislature has established a committee to study whether the state should reinstate a road test requirement. The push for the committee came after an 87-year-old driver hit and killed a motorcyclist last year.

In states like New Hampshire, where public transportation isn’t always an option, and stores and other necessities might not be just around the corner, seniors might often be compelled to stay on the roads longer than they should. So one of the biggest issue facing seniors and driving is striking a balance between safety and independence.

“Driving is such an important aspect to a person’s independence,” says Staci Frazier, an occupational therapist and one of the original founders of DriveAbility at Exeter Hospital, a program for individuals of all ages to learn to drive, return to driving or be evaluated for the appropriateness of driving. “Often following an injury or medical problem, people’s first concern is not being able to get dressed, but will they be able to drive again.”

Studies have shown that seniors like deRepentigny tend to set their own limits on their driving time after an injury or as they age. For instance, he doesn’t go anywhere once the sun goes down (“there are too many crazy drivers on the road at night”). And a few years back, when he fell getting out of the shower and hurt his knee, he let Irene do the driving until his injury was fully healed.

“I had a hard time bending my knee,” he says, “and I need that right leg to move from the gas to the brake or if I need to make a quick movement and push hard on the brake.”

But he still sees plenty of seniors who don’t know or simply ignore their limitations. “I see them at church, and they can’t bend or kneel, they can’t use their leg, their reflexes are gone, they move slow, they use a cane to walk out and then they get in the car. If it takes that much effort to get up or walk, how can they use the pedals?”

Frazier says she sees seniors at every age spectrum, and adds that addressing driving early, before there is an accident or problem, is critical. “Most seniors are referred [to the DriveAbility program] by a physician to be evaluated due to a change in medical, cognitive or physical status,” she says. “Some seniors are aware that they may be having difficulty in the area of driving and some are not.” Because the evaluation is so thorough and they are able to provide objective data regarding their performance and risks, “most people feel positive following the evaluation, whether the recommendations are to discontinue driving, continue driving or initiate training.”

Frazier also points out that there can be a silver lining to seniors hanging up the car keys once and for all. “Driving can be very expensive. Often people have the money to hire transportation or seek alternative modes when they don’t have the cost of an automobile.” These alternate forms of transportation include public transit (often with reduced senior fares) or taxis. Many churches, senior centers, and other nonprofit groups provide ride services to the elderly. Older adults can also look into hiring a private driver or sharing one. Motorized wheelchairs can help those in easily accessible and well-paved areas to get around. And using a three-wheeled bicycle with a cart in the back can be not only handy for doing errands but also good exercise.

In order to stay behind the wheel for as long as possible and maximize their own safety, seniors should regularly get their hearing and eyes checked, and they should be getting enough sleep. They should also make sure their medications don’t have side effects that might affect their driving ability: the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety claims that 95 percent of seniors use medications that may impair their driving.

Seniors should also keep their cars in tip-top condition and make sure it’s one that is easy to drive, with automatic transmission, power brakes and steering, and big mirrors.

“The worst thing is an indecisive driver,” deRepentigny says. “I don’t want to give up my independence but I know what can happen if I don’t have the reflexes and the knowledge of what I have to do. My captain on the fire department used to say ‘Make sure you know what you’re going to do before you move this vehicle.’”

Being too careful is another pet peeve of his: “You can cause a lot of accidents by being too careful. You may say, ‘I’ve never had an accident,’ but you could have been responsible for causing many accidents by stopping too long, not moving or taking too long.”

No matter what your driving skill may be, Frazier points out that it’s better to evaluate on an individual basis rather than make sweeping generalizations. After all, the DriveAbility program has helped retrain many seniors to return to driving following a stroke, brain injury, physical disability and cognitive changes. As she sums up: “Age does not determine ability to drive; skills do.”

Categories: Seniors