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As NH ages, so do its drivers

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 10. 2016 8:14PM
AARP NH hosts seminars across the state called "We Need to Talk, Family Conversations with Older Drivers" about when to give up their driver's license. Here, AARP NH volunteer Charlie Zoeller leads a seminar at the Puritan in Manchester. (GRETCHEN GROSKY/Union Leader)
About this series
Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday news report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire's aging population and seeking out solutions.

Union Leader reporter Gretchen Grosky would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at or (603) 206-7739.

Joseph Kincaid, 84, drives himself to MaryAnn’s in Salem for breakfast two or three times each week. He also hits the road to shop for groceries, see friends, run errands and go to the doctor.

“I maybe put 40 miles on my car each week,” Kincaid said. “But I need my car. I can’t get anywhere without it ... The day I stop driving is the day I die.”

In the last five years, the number of licensed drivers over 65 in New Hampshire grew by nearly 50,000, to make up nearly 20 percent of the state’s 1.3 million drivers, according to the state’s Registry of Motor Vehicles.

In a state with limited public transportation and more than 37 percent of its population living in rural areas, experts say the number of elderly drivers will continue to grow over the next 20 years.

While 33 states have licensing renewal requirements for seniors, New Hampshire does not. For most seniors, licenses are renewed every five years; some can be done online unless they are told by the registry to come in for a vision test.

AARP NH offers seminars on how to talk to someone about giving up the keys. Exeter Hospital offers DriveAbility, an assessment program which evaluates the driver and helps them make adjustments to stay on the road. New automobile technology, like parking assist and lane departure warnings, are making it safer for seniors.

“Driving is probably one of the most complicated things you do in a day,” said Staci Frazier, who runs the DriveAbility program at Exeter Hospital. “But we have to get people to start thinking about ’How am I going to get around when I can’t drive anymore?’ That should be a part of the planning process for aging.”

When to quit

AARP NH offers workshops on warning signs and when to tell seniors it’s time to give up the keys. About 15 people met at the Puritan in Manchester recently to listen to volunteer Charlie Zoeller talk about the issue.

Zoeller said taking away a license from an older driver should be a last resort.

“Limit driving only with valid safety concerns,” Zoeller said. “There could be temporary things that could be affecting them like driving into the sun with glaucoma, which means they may just have to avoid driving at certain times. It could be medication.”

Zoeller said the older people tend to adjust their driving habits. They won’t drive at night, ask for more rides, and make adjustments where they live, and look for a copilot.

According to an AARP survey, most seniors said they prefer to be told about issues with their driving by a spouse, followed by their doctor and then their children. Zoeller said the most important part is beginning the conversation. To prepare for it, Zoeller and AARP recommend taking some time to observe the driver and document different issues by jotting down dates and details.

“The last person they want to hear it from is a police officer,” Zoeller said.

According to a 2014 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent nonprofit, older drivers were involved in traffic fatalities less than some other age groups. The report looked at the total number of crashes for the age group compared to the age group’s population. Senior drivers age 70 or more were involved in fatal crashes at a rate of 12 percent, compared to 15.5 percent for younger drivers age 16-19. The largest percentage belonged to drivers 20-34 years of age at 18.3 percent.

Recognizing an issue

Staci Frazier said the DriveAbility program at Exeter Hospital offers two- to three-hour evaluation tests for seniors, including depth perception, color perception, memory and problem-solving abilities, physical strength, coordination and brake reaction time. It is followed by a driving test; Frazier is the passenger and observer.

She said many are referred to the program by physicians and family members and sometimes people refer themselves. Frazier said sometimes seniors just need a little help with the technology in their new cars. Ideally, she said the senior comes to her when there “hasn’t been a problem.”

Frazier’s goal is to keep people driving “for as long as they possibly can.” She looks at adaptive equipment such as left-foot gas pedals, hand controls and special mirrors that show more of what’s around the car. She said many of the newer cars come with rearview cameras, adjustable tilt and telescoping steering wheels, and power seats, which can also help.

Sometimes, the person needs to be told it’s time to give up the keys. Frazier said when that happens, she reports it to the Registry of Motor Vehicles even though she is not required to.

“We realize when we tell people they can’t drive anymore, we’re having a huge, huge impact in their lives,” Frazier said.

If that’s the case, options are discussed. Frazier said many are concerned about the cost of getting around when they cannot drive themselves.

“Driving is expensive,” she said. “We talk to them about the cost of the car, the repairs, the gas, the insurance and how it may be cheaper to call a taxi.”

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