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Study finds seniors are unfit to drive seven to 10 years before they stop, AARP NH pushes back

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 15. 2018 10:20AM
According to the AAA Foundation, more than 200,000 drivers over 65 were injured in crashes in 2016 and more than 3,500 of them died. 

CONCORD — A new national study concludes many seniors outlive the age they are capable of driving by seven to 10 years, yet more than 80 percent fail to talk to a doctor or family member about it.

But leaders of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons say many seniors can and do drive capably into their 80s and each person’s skills on the road erode on an individual basis.

“I would say that we do hear the number-one person that someone would talk to about their driving is a family member,” said Jamie Bulen, AARP NH’s associate state director for communications.

“We also know that older drivers start adjusting their driving habits. They don’t drive at night or they won’t go on extended trips. They may just limit driving to the grocery store, to church or to a friend’s house nearby.”

The national study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found when seniors did have that conversation about driving safety, in 15 percent of cases it came after a crash or traffic infraction.

The AAA Foundation said in 2016, more than 200,000 drivers over age 65 were injured in crashes and more than 3,500 of them died.

“The right time to stop driving varies for everyone,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety. “This research shows that older drivers can be hesitant to initiate conversations about their driving capabilities, so it is important that families encourage them to talk early and often about their future behind the wheel. With early discussion and proper planning, elderly drivers may extend their time on the road.”

AARP NH runs a series of driver safety refresher courses across the state. Volunteer coordinators stress the need for seniors to consult with their family and/or physician about driving competency.

“These are packed with volunteers and they talk to seniors about exercises and tasks to keep them alert and to reach out and talk,” Bulen said.

Federal studies conclude senior drivers aren’t the group most likely to get into car crashes; that’s clearly drivers under the age of 21.

And young male drivers are more likely to get into crashes than female drivers.

A study by the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence and MIT found seniors were generally safe drivers with high rates of seat belt use and few citations for alcohol-related charges.

But due to their relative frailty, seniors can be more likely involved in fatal crashes, though that percentage has been declining.

The MIT and Hartford Center study found the fatality rate increased slightly for drivers over 70, but rose significantly once drivers reach 85.

New Hampshire’s numbers

New Hampshire had the highest rate of fatal crashes involving drivers over age 65 — 19 percent, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The national average was 13.6 percent in 2015, the most recent year when all states can be compared.

The District of Columbia had the lowest percentage, with 3.3 percent. Three New England states were above the national average of seniors in fatal crashes, including Massachusetts (15.6 percent), Vermont (15.9 percent) and Maine (16.3 percent). Rhode Island (8.6 percent) had the lowest percentage of seniors in fatal crashes in the region.

This could be the result of simple math, since New Hampshire is one of the five most “graying” states in the country, Bulen said.

“If we’ve got more seniors and they are still driving, it stands to reason we could see more accidents,” Bulen said.

In 2015, four of those New Hampshire drivers involved in fatal crashes were over 80 years old; five of them were over 85.

New Hampshire passed a law that gives immunity to health care providers for reporting to authorities someone they don’t believe is medically fit to drive.

But few doctors or nurses do this; a physician review panel created by state law on this topic has never been financed, said Doug McNutt, associate director of advocacy for NH AARP.

“Doctors are very reluctant to come forward,” McNutt said. “Family members are more likely to report what they are seeing in driving limitations of a loved one.”

The Hartford/MIT study found married seniors are most willing to talk about this with their spouse. Older drivers living alone prefer to converse with a doctor, adult child or a close friend about the matter.

The same study found senior women were more receptive than men to hear from adult children that their driving skills had worsened.

Earlier research by AAA found that older drivers who have stopped driving are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression and nearly five times as likely to enter a long-term care facility as those who remain behind the wheel.

“This is the challenge because driving is so much a part of their identity, their self-worth,” Bulen observed.

75-and-over law repealed

For 12 years, New Hampshire had a law on the books that required those who turned 75 to show state motor vehicle officials they had the “physical and mental qualifications” to keep a driver’s license.

All motorists have to renew their license every five years and pass an eye test.

Critics maintained the law compelled anyone over 75 to have to pass a road test to keep their driving privilege.

In 2011, then-State Rep. Bob Williams, D-Concord, a former chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said it was unfair to single out drivers at an arbitrary age.

At that time, Williams was in his mid-80s and he drove to and from the State House.

“This was expressed as a form of age discrimination and as I recall that resonated with legislators,” said Greg Moore, who at the time was chief of staff to then-NH House Speaker Bill O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon.

The Legislature passed the law on a voice vote in both chambers and then-Gov. John Lynch signed it into law.

The current law states “the age of the license holder shall not constitute cause” to retest the driver at license renewal time.

Illinois remains the only state left with a road-test requirement for older drivers; it applies to those 75 and older. Anyone 87 or older in that state has to renew their license annually.

The Highway Loss Data Institute found that law has reduced the number of older drivers in Illinois; those who remain on the road are “somewhat less risky” than older drivers in nearby states.

But the same organization found New Hampshire’s now-repealed road test requirement did not produce the same benefit.; The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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