States try to help elderly stay behind the wheel

Beyond gas-guzzling SUVs and drivers gabbing on their cellphones, there's a trend on America's highways that is prompting action on the part of states and transportation specialists nationwide.

The highway fatality rate has increased 33 percent for seniors in the past decade, even as it has fallen nearly 10 percent overall. By 2030, the number of Americans age 65 or older is expected to double to more than 60 million - or 1 in 5 drivers.

Concerned about these figures, states are taking action. From Wisconsin to Florida, they are enlarging the lettering on highway signs, increasing their luminosity, moving them forward a few yards to give drivers more time to react, painting shoulder lines, and adding lights and left-turn lanes.

But critics say that's not enough. Impaired elderly drivers who hit curbs, confuse brake and gas pedals, and stop suddenly in traffic should be permanently parked, they say.

Of course, states are loath to take that ultimate step. Although driving may not be enshrined in the Constitution, seniors say getting behind the wheel is synonymous with liberty, to say nothing of the pursuit of happiness.

"The first words out of everyone's mouth when you talk about cars and transportation is 'independence,' " says Audrey Straight, senior policy adviser for AARP. "They say things like 'It means the world to me' or 'I'd die if I had to stop driving'.... Taking that away from an older person can be devastating."

Prodded by politically powerful seniors' groups and faced with expensive alternatives if the elderly are removed from their cars (existing public transportation is often aimed at getting commuters downtown rather than seniors to the grocery store or community center), states are looking at a variety of ways to safely extend the driving life of seniors. A three-legged approach to the challenge has evolved: improve highway design, improve vehicle design, and improve the driver.

The Federal Highway Administration has published 93 highway-improvement recommendations that would benefit seniors. More than half cover the single most dangerous spot on the road for the elderly: intersections.

For example, cities are increasingly placing signs on boulevards announcing the name of the next cross street so that drivers have time to shift lanes, rather than make an abrupt adjustment when they are upon the intersection. "If an older person knows what to expect, he or she can react as well as a younger person. They just need more time," says Loren Staplin, founder and head of TransAnalytics, a Pennsylvania-based transportation consulting firm.

Some of the changes are common-sensical: sloping curbs instead of vertical curbs.

If a drifting elderly driver hits a vertical curb, they may blow a tire, lose control, or overcorrect and spin out. A sloping curb can cut down on more serious accidents.

Retrofitting such changes would constitute a monumental expense to states already hard-pressed to meet demands for building new roads and maintaining old ones, even though the changes are designed to improve safety for all drivers, not just seniors.

Consequently, only one state, Florida, has allocated highway-improvement funds aimed specifically at seniors. States are instead building elder-friendly highway improvements into new roadway construction or scheduled upgrades. When the techniques are incorporated into the up-front design (better display of signs or larger lettering), there is often relatively little incremental cost.

Federal highway officials say they are particularly encouraged by evidence they see that some of their recommendations are being treated by states not just as guidelines, but as new design standards.

Some states are focusing on altering elderly drivers rather than their highways.

But individually assessing drivers to determine their level of competence and then creating specific license restrictions involve nonstandardized tasks that state departments of motor vehicle are not particularly good at. That approach is also expensive when multiplied across millions of drivers. And such restrictions draw allegations of ageism from senior drivers.

A third avenue for improving road safety for seniors is the automobile itself. Detroit has recognized the issue and has responded with a number of innovations. A greater range of seat adjustments provide a higher platform and thus more visibility. Larger mirrors and simple dashboard controls help, too.

But experts voice concern that the complexity of some high-tech safety improvements may prove counterproductive.

Mr. Staplin says his research has shown that heads-up displays, which project information onto the windshield so a driver doesn't have to look down at dashboard controls, sometimes cause information overload for seniors. Similarly, night-vision systems, which can outline a dark animal crossing the road, can also provide more distraction than assistance to some elderly drivers.

"It takes so much effort to interpret what that night-vision system is showing you," says Staplin, "that you end up not seeing things you would normally see simply by looking out the windshield."

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