When's the right time for an older adult to stop driving?
"It's not age per se that matters — it's how well you can handle driving," says Marvin Kohn, California coordinator for the AARP's extensive driver-safety program designed for older adults.
Vision, hearing and reaction time often decline with age. Because of this, instructors in AARP's "Smart Driver" class spend a fair amount of time on the question: When should you stop driving?, said Barry Haskell, a longtime instructor who's scheduled to teach an eight-hour Smart Driver class at Avenidas senior center in Palo Alto on Dec. 10.
One sign it might be time to stop — or restrict driving to daylight hours and non-freeway routes — is "general nervousness, or if you notice yourself being somewhat anxious about your driving," Haskell said. "Then there are the close calls. Close calls happen — we all have them — but if you see you're having them every month, that's another issue."
Other warning signs include driving too fast or too slow for road conditions, delayed response to unexpected situations, becoming easily distracted or having difficulty moving into or maintaining the correct lane of traffic, said AARP Vice President John Dunning, who directs the nationwide Driver Safety program for the organization. Across the U.S., AARP deploys about 3,500 volunteer instructors, like Haskell, to deliver a safety course designed for older drivers.
Drivers 70 and older have higher fatal crash rates per mile traveled than middle-aged drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "But the crash rates per person are similar to other-age drivers because seniors generally drive less," Haskell said.
In a nationwide study of serious crashes, the most frequent error made by drivers 70 and older was "inadequate surveillance, which included looking but not seeing, and failing to look," the Insurance Institute said. Older drivers "were more likely than drivers ages 35-54 to make inadequate surveillance errors or to misjudge the length of a gap between vehicles or another vehicle's speed."
AARP's Smart Driver course is targeted at drivers in their 60s and 70s, though participants have ranged in age from 16 to 100, Dunning said. The class covers basic driving skills, how to reduce distractions, adjust driving to age-related physical changes and more.
California law requires insurance companies to offer a discount to drivers 55 and older who can show they've passed the class. By a show of hands in his classes, Haskell said at least two-thirds of participants indicate they're there to get the discount.
Regardless of why they enrolled, 9 out of 10 participants report that taking the class has encouraged them to change at least one driving habit, Dunning said. Frequently mentioned changes include maintaining better following distance or taking alternate routes to avoid risky left turns across traffic, he said.
Offered since 1979, the Smart Driver curriculum has been updated eight times, most recently this year. New topics include marijuana and DUIs and technology in cars. The technology section covers collision avoidance systems, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist.
"We don't want drivers to be confused or annoyed by technology that's supposed to protect them," Dunning said. "We have to learn how to use it as it's designed. We encourage drivers to understand the vehicle and, if not, to hold the dealer accountable for explaining how it works."
License-renewal requirements for older drivers vary by state. In California, drivers 70 and up must renew in person every five years, with proof of adequate vision required each time.
Palo Alto Police Sgt. David Lee said anyone who feels that a driver — of any age — is not fit for the road can submit a "Request for Driver Re-examination" to the Department of Motor Vehicles by filling out the agency's DS Form 699.
If submitters request that their name not be revealed to the individual being reported, "confidentiality will be honored to the fullest extent possible," the DMV says on the form.
Determining when to stop driving is "a very touchy issue, as you might imagine," Haskell said. "But there's no hard and fast rule."
Driver-safety classes for older adults
Offered by AARP
Eight-hour course targeting drivers ages 60 and older. The class covers basic driving skills and how to adjust driving to age-related physical changes. After completion, drivers may be eligible for a discount on their auto insurance.
Upcoming classes: Saturday, Dec. 10, at Avenidas, 450 Bryant St., Palo Alto
For more information, go to aarp.org/auto/driver-safety
Offered by AAA
Online course focused on senior driver improvement. After completion, drivers may be eligible for a discount on their auto insurance.
For more information, go to aaadriverprogram.com
Age Well, Drive Smart
Offered by the California Highway Patrol
Free, three-hour presentation focused on safe driving practices and current California driving laws.
Upcoming classes: 9:30 a.m., Wednesday, Jan. 25; 1 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 9, at Avenidas, 450 Bryant St., Palo Alto
To register, email [email protected]