Today marks the end of National Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, a campaign by the American Occupational Therapy Association to promote the importance of knowing how to drive safely longer and how to remain active and independent long after transitioning from driving.
In Charlotte County, almost a third of all traffic crashes involve drivers 65 and older. Since July, there have been 1,913 reportable crashes, 623 of which involved people 65 and older. Of the 151 crashes involving injuries, 54 involved people 65 and older.
The North Port Police Department does not keep crash statistics on age, though Spokesperson Josh Taylor said in his experience, older drivers tend to be more cautious.
The Charlotte statistics don’t include who was at fault in the crashes, but in either case, crashes can be more dangerous for older people.
“If someone is in a car accident, the probability of surviving it is much greater if they are young,” said Tony Flores, treasurer for the local AARP chapter in Charlotte County.
Flores was one of the organizers of a “CarFit” event Thursday morning at the Promenades Mall from 9 to 11:30 a.m. CarFit is a national program that offers older adults an opportunity to check how well their vehicles “fit” them. Volunteers help teach drivers about properly adjusting their mirrors to minimize blind spots, good positioning on the gas and brake pedals, and ensuring the steering wheel is no closer than 10 inches to their bodies. It also helps promote conversations about driver safety and community mobility.
“These are my keys,” Flores said. “When is it time for me to hang them up?”
The answer, he said, is whenever someone feels uncomfortable or they are endangering the safety of others.
“Many older drivers say they’ve had no tickets, no crashes, but how many have they caused?” he said. “If you’re driving too slow, because you’re unsure of yourself, you’re causing other people to have problems.”
Sgt. Bill Maymon, of the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, said the crashes the Traffic Unit sees involving older people usually have to do with slower reflexes.
“Obviously as people get older, their reaction time gets slower,” said Maymon, of CCSO’s Traffic Unit. “We see a lot of single vehicles in front of a business where they meant to hit the brake but they hit the gas, hit a pole or hit a building.”
Some older drivers may be uncomfortable driving at night as their eyesight deteriorates, and they may have trouble judging the speed of other vehicles, Maymon said.
Joe Dever, who teaches a refresher class for drivers in Lee County through AARP and the Area Agency on Aging for Southwest Florida, said the world is a different place now than when seniors learned to drive. Most people stop learning about driving when they get their driver’s license, he said, but it’s something people should keep learning, especially as technology and road systems evolve.
“When we learned how to drive, when we got our license, the cars were very different,” he said. “You looked out the window. Now you’ve got a dashboard full of controls that can be very distracting. The car you drive now would be science fiction when I got my license.”
Roads, too, have gotten more complicated.
“There were two lanes in each direction back then,” Dever said. “The things we grew up on aren’t necessarily so anymore. ... Some of these intersections we’re seeing now are so complicated. As we come up on them, it’s like two turning lanes in each direction, bike lanes, all of this. For many of us, it’s difficult to cope with them. We need to make faster decisions and sometimes cognitively that’s not easy to do.”
Maymon said he knows from personal experience with family members that choosing to give up driving can be a hard decision.
“When they have to give up driving, it’s a big ordeal,” he said. “It’s their mobility, their independence. Now they’re dependent on public transportation.”
When deputies and officers notice someone struggling to drive, they can inform the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to have the person re-examined for their fitness to drive. But screenings and evaluations don’t always have to end in licenses being taken away.
According to the AOTA, an evaluation by an occupational therapist can help older drivers identify their strengths and find ways to compensate for their weaknesses. They can also help identify alternative modes of transportation when necessary and provide support for drivers to get where they need to go when they need to get there.