Winter 2005 Forward to a Friend

Although they’re at opposite ends of the human spectrum in terms of physical prowess and acquired wisdom, the youngest and oldest drivers share the distinction of being at the highest risk for traffic accidents.

For both age groups, what they don’t know can hurt them. Many youngsters learn real-world driving lessons the hard way, while seniors may be unpleasantly surprised by slowly diminishing responsiveness they once took for granted. However, there are several ways to make driving safer for young and old alike.

New Drivers

Most teenagers are invincible – just ask them. Unfortunately, on the basis of miles driven, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal accidents as all other drivers.

However, parental guidance can greatly improve the odds. The Road Ready Teens ( safety program estimates parents who educate and supervise teen drivers can reduce teens’ chances of being in a crash by as much as 33 percent.

Other ways to make young drivers safer:

It’s Their Responsibility – Young drivers must comprehend that, regardless of any circumstances, all problems resulting from their driving belong to them.

Keys Belong to Parents – Parents should set and enforce rules governing driving privileges – not rights, privileges. Regardless of vehicle ownership, the keys belong to the parents.

Keys can be used to enforce everything from safe driving practices to academic performance. Have young drivers sign a “safe driving contract.” It’s easy – they’ll sign almost anything to drive – and it’s a great hedge against future misunderstandings.

Graduated Licenses – In many states, a graduated licensing system, which sets strict conditions governing when and with whom teens may drive, has reduced accidents involving young drivers.

Most graduated licensing has three stages: A learner’s permit requires supervision at all times by a licensed parent, guardian or an adult at least 21 years old. This six-month period includes basic driver education and may restrict the number or age of passengers. No crashes or convictions (including failure to wear seatbelts) are allowed – and the legal limit for alcohol is zero. Any violation invalidates the permit. An intermediate, or provisional, license is less restrictive. After passing a road test, the driver may proceed unsupervised during daylight hours. Some passenger restrictions may still apply, as does zero alcohol tolerance. The driver must avoid convictions or at-fault crashes for at least 12 straight months, at which time an unrestricted license is granted (although there is still zero alcohol tolerance for drivers under 21).

Buckle Up – In 2003, 75 percent of the 3,657 traffic fatalities aged 15-20 were not wearing seatbelts. Let young drivers know you expect them to buckle up – and that they will lose their keys if they don’t.

Impaired Driving – Absolutely no drugs or alcohol. Teens simply must say no – or get themselves a bus schedule. However, have a plan in place for “uncomfortable” situations that might arise if they or others in the vehicle are unfit to drive. Let your kids know that they can call you any time day or night for a ride.

Choose It, Check It – Kids love high-performance vehicles. Don’t put them in one. Safety and reliability are more important.

Have young drivers sign a “safe driving contract.” It’s easy – they’ll sign almost anything to drive – and it’s a great hedge against future misunderstandings.

Some parents assign the family jalopy to their newest driver. However, older vehicles may lack features such as high-mounted brake lights, antilock braking or airbags, and are more likely to have mechanical issues. The vehicle should pass a safety inspection before a teen takes the wheel.

Parents Rule – It’s up to parents to set a good example and to make young drivers aware of the risks and responsibilities that come with driving. Parents, remember: The keys belong to you.

Older Drivers

Aging may be good for wine and violins, but it generally does not improve automobiles or their drivers. In fact, among drivers aged 75-79, traffic fatalities are four times as high as for those between 30 and 59 – and nine times higher for drivers over 85 compared with those 25-69.

This is not just “the other guy.” Every month, the state of Pennsylvania randomly selects 1,650 drivers 45 and older for a medical and vision checkup before license renewal. Only 50 percent pass with no problem; 25 percent wind up with restrictions, and the other 25 percent are not renewed.

Compensating for age requires a willingness to revise and accept one’s limitations. Things to watch:

Vision – Even people with 20/20 vision experience a drop-off in night vision by age 40, and a pronounced loss by age 60. Along with night vision, peripheral vision and the ability to scan and discern rapidly moving objects lessen with age. Also, older drivers are more likely to have other eye problems such as glaucoma or cataracts.

Hearing – About 33 percent of people 65 and older have some hearing loss.

Flexibility/Reflexes – Arthritis and other illnesses – as well as just plain getting older – can make it harder to move and react as quickly or to see as much when twisting to check blind spots.

Judgment – Reduced vision, hearing loss and other infirmities, as well as medications, can slow or alter decision-making abilities.

Warning Signs – For heretofore safe drivers, a recent crash or close call can be reason enough to reevaluate driving abilities. Other warning signs include forgetfulness, getting lost, not noticing traffic signals, driving too slowly or too fast, unawareness of other vehicles/people or a recent rash of traffic tickets or minor collisions.

For older drivers, an annual eye exam is a good idea. Making sure the windshield, windows and headlights are clean also improves night vision. Seniors also can plan to reduce night driving and avoid rush-hour traffic and bad weather, while simply slowing down can allow for slower reflexes. A remedial driving course can help reevaluate and adjust driving habits. Seniors, too, should have someone to call in case they feel uncomfortable driving.

When it’s time:

As difficult as it can be for lifelong drivers to accept that it’s no longer safe for them to drive, it’s almost impossible to convince someone else to hand over the keys. If you believe someone close to you is no longer capable of driving, have him or her consult a physician. If it is time for the patient to retire from driving, the doctor will have the best information, training and experience to explain why.