Last week, my grandmother fell in her kitchen and had to be rushed off to the emergency room. Her already poorly functioning legs now hurt more than usual, so it's impossible for her to slide in and out of her new Honda Civic — let alone drive. But even before the fall, her driving skills left something to be desired. In just the first week she had the car she backed it over the neighbor's mailbox.
But my grandmother will most likely be back behind the wheel next week, because my grandfather can't see well enough to drive (the state finally took his license two years ago) and they live in a fairly remote Washington, D.C. suburb.
Grandma, I love you, but you're too old to drive.
Where my grandparents live is not even really all that remote anymore, but as a recent BBC report noted, "Walking in U.S. cities is like world peace. It's a good idea, but actually putting it into practice can be somewhat difficult."
That's especially true if your legs don't work well or if you can't see across the crosswalk at a busy intersection. A distant signal is as invisible to my grandfather's blurry 88-year-old eyes as a ship in a fog bank, and the vast traffic crossings would take my grandmother's semi-functioning legs several evolutions of red and green signals to get across.
But in a suburb where the nearest shops are more than a mile away — and we're only talking about a 7Eleven, a dry cleaner and some restaurants; the nearest useful stores are nearly three miles away — my grandmother has to drive in order to get groceries and ferry herself and my grandfather to their numerous medical and dental appointments.
There's no public transportation system to take over if (when) she surrenders her keys, so chauffeur duty would (will) be up to the nearest available kin. The closest one lives 30 minutes away and works more than an hour distant.
My family isn't the only one with older relatives behind the wheel. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, there were more than 32 million drivers over the age of 65 in 2009. That number is expected to increase as the Don Draper generation — the World War II-winning creators of the spread-out suburban dream — begins to fade and aging Baby Boomers take their place. There are a lot more boomers, and car-centric suburban sprawl is all that many of them have known. NHTSA estimates that the number of elderly drivers will exceed 40 million by 2020.
What does that mean in terms of safety? Well, older drivers aren't as likely to crash and hurt other people as are teenagers and drunk drivers between the ages of 20 and 34, but they are, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more likely to be injured or killed in crashes due to increased vulnerability to trauma, especially after age 75. NHTSA data says that almost 5,300 65-plus-year-old drivers were killed and 187,000 injured in 2009 — 16% of traffic fatalities and 8% of traffic injuries that year.
I certainly don't want my grandparents to become a statistic, but they have to get around somehow. It's becoming more difficult for them, especially since they cling to travel schedules they've kept for years.
Let's look at a common scenario: A family dinner at my parents' house. They rarely, if ever, leave before nightfall. It's a 30-minute drive home, some of it on deer-infested byways and most of it on a busy interstate. They don't simply get in the car and leave; departure preparations resemble an F/A-18 preflight check. As they inadvertently roll windows up and down and bicker over which buttons move the seats and mirrors, the rest of us are left with a dull feeling of unease. Once not long ago, the customary "we're home now" call came nearly an hour after it was due. In the darkness, they had made a wrong turn and drove around in circles for a while. It's the same trip they've made for decades, but they're both in their 80s now.
No one wants to give up their independence, and studies show that when someone will relinquish higher risk driving habits - driving at night, traveling on high-speed interstates, braving inclement weather - depends upon the person. Older drivers are more experienced and usually make better decisions than younger ones, but not surprisingly, men tend more toward the "not until you pry 'em out of my cold, dead hands" approach when it comes to letting go of their driving privileges. And let's be honest, in a country where having a license equals freedom and mobility, who wants to do that unless they really, really have to?
My grandfather hung on until the bitter end. A retired civil engineer, he had devised a number of creative, but ridiculous homemade gadgets and techniques to help him pilot his Honda without crashing it. But during the last 15 of his driving years, he consistently stopped 20 to 30 yards short of intersections, and his proprietary spectacle stacks and marking stickers didn't protect his car from frequent scrapes with other objects. The car's doors and bumpers bore the dings and scratches to prove it. As much as he hated having his wings clipped, I think it was better for everyone when the state finally decided that he couldn't see well enough to pilot a motor vehicle.
Older drivers can certainly stay safer on the road by evaluating potential risks, though. Being aware of health problems, limiting exposure to bad weather, darkness and fast highways and choosing a vehicle with features that fit the driver's needs are all things that can help aging motorists stay behind the wheel as long as possible. NHTSA works with most states and many law enforcement agencies to educate people about how to adapt driving habits to age.
AARP has offered driver safety courses since 1979 - now available in classrooms and online - that cover everything from driving techniques and changing automotive technology (my grandfather's 1964 Volkswagen didn't have nearly as many gadgets as the new Civic) to how medications affect driving.
Most important, perhaps, is knowing when to call it quits. AARP has also compiled a list of signs that it's time to retire from motoring. The list includes things like finding dings and scratches on your car, getting lost, having trouble seeing pavement markings and having difficulty looking out the rear view mirror - all things that are familiar to my family situation.
I continue to hope that the next generation of aging motorists will have better public transportation options when they can no longer drive.
But in today's world, when the inevitable finally happens and the state takes my grandmother's license, she and her husband will have to rely upon family and neighbors for a while as they think about moving into a smaller scale, motorized cart-friendly road grid.
Benjamin Preston is a journalist and car enthusiast who has written for Petersen's 4Wheel & Offroad, The Santa Barbara Independent and on his personal blog. He's currently Associate Editor of the Telluride Daily Planet.