Staying safe on the road as we age |

Staying safe on the road as we age

Angelyn Frankenberg
Angelyn Frankenberg
Staff Photo |


RSVP Colorado AARP Driver Safety Class (offered in partnership with Colorado Mountain College)


Janine Burke, Shift to Independence


Now that we are getting older, the jokes we’ve all told about old drivers just aren’t funny anymore. We really don’t want to think about how aging can affect our ability to drive safely. We get our licenses when we are teenagers, and most of us never take another driving test on the road or put much thought into an inherently dangerous activity until something bad happens.

The three factors responsible for most car crashes in Colorado are speed, distracted driving and driving impaired by alcohol or other drugs, including prescription drugs, none of which is limited to drivers older than 50. We have to face other facts, though. The fatal crash rate begins to increase noticeably at age 70-plus. Although it takes about a decade for it to catch up to the rate for those in their early 20s, it takes a sharp turn upward after that and drivers age 85 and older have the highest fatality rates per mile driven.

Learning about age-related changes that affect driving and working to sharpen our skills are essential to staying safe on the road as we get older.

The High Country Retired Senior Volunteer Program recruits volunteers age 55 and older and places them in programs that match their skills and interests.

One of the organization’s offerings is the Colorado AARP Driver Safety Class for people 50 and older. The classes, offered several times per year in partnership with Colorado Mountain College, cover topics such as how to compensate for changes in hearing and vision, how medications — prescription, over-the-counter or supplements — can affect driving, and help individuals evaluate their own and others’ driving abilities with a Personal Driving Capability Index. Classes are offered in both four- and eight-hour formats for a nominal fee that covers the cost of materials.

Glenwood Springs residents Henry and Sheryl Doll, two volunteer driver safety teachers, discussed class details with me. They pointed out that small, gradual changes in vision, even when they are not symptoms of serious conditions and do not negatively affect most daily activities, can be deadly when driving. These include losses in peripheral vision, a decreased ability to see contrast and reduced depth perception.

Processing time can also slow as we age. Visual processing speed and useful field of view refer to how much information in a complex field a person can take in quickly and, along with reaction time — the time between recognizing a stimulus and initiating a response — are two key areas in which small declines can have huge negative effects on driving.

The Dolls explained that the AARP driver safety class helps participants acknowledge and, in many cases, compensate for changes that can affect driving ability.

Help is also available for people who need more complex assessments and training. Grand Junction occupational therapist Janine Burke runs Shift to Independence, a mobile driver evaluation service. She works with drivers of all ages from Glenwood Springs to Montrose, but one of her services is objectively evaluating older drivers’ abilities and helping them compensate for sensory and other changes.

Besides helping people understand sensory losses, Burke often prescribes exercises that increase flexibility and strength so a person can turn to see better and handle vehicle controls more effectively. In other cases, she recommends and teaches clients to use adaptive equipment such as specialized mirrors and hand controls.

A few tips:

• Slow down — Don’t crawl along at 30 mph in a highway left lane, but do drive at, or slightly below, the posted speed limit. Driving just a little slower reduces stress and can help make up for slower reaction time.

• Look both ways before proceeding onto a street or through an intersection even when you have the right of way. Doing so can help make up for peripheral vision losses.

• Read my previous columns about neurobics and Tai Chi for tips on keeping your brain fit.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing older drivers is fear of changes that make us feel old. That fear is difficult to admit and impossible to measure, but for many of us, gradual age-related changes eventually result in a bewildering close call. “I don’t understand why I didn’t see it, why I stopped barely in time, why I almost caused whatever almost happened. I must be getting old.” And that thought scares us into denial. A friend’s or spouse’s concern is more likely to spark argument and resentment than cooperation.

We may vow to be more careful, which is always a smart move, but what if we treat driving like other skills and cooperate with each other to find solutions before we experience a close call or worse? We can prevent many age-associated changes that affect driving and compensate for others. There is a long road between experiencing small changes and giving up driving entirely. Make it a safe one.

Angelyn Frankenberg,, is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master’s in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music.

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