Though older drivers have years of experience on the road, driving today is a lot different and more complex than it was in the past. Technology, vehicles and, most importantly, roadways have changed dramatically.
"Traffic wasn't the same as it was when these seniors were learning how to drive," said Lori L. Cook, safety adviser of AAA East Central Safety Department. "We want seniors to keep driving as long as they can, and there are a lot of things you could do to compensate for what you are lacking."
Cook is an instructor of the AAA driving class "Safe Driving For Mature Operators," which is a two-day driving course for seniors. This course helps seniors adjust and learn safer driving habits as they age. Cook has taught this course to area seniors at various locations, including AAA Trumbull County in Niles and local churches. The course is offered from May to October.
"'Safe Driving For Mature Operators' is a refresher course, but it's an essential course if seniors want to keep driving better, longer and safer," Cook said.
Lindsay Sena, communications manager for AARP Driver Safety, based in Washington D.C., said that AARP launched a new enhanced driving course, AARP Smart Driver Course, on Jan. 1. The course was created to help those 50 and older stay up-to-date with current driving laws and technologies outside and inside the car. Sena said that AARP Driver Safety has been offering courses since 1979.
"There are more roads, changes in local traffic laws, and car technologies," Sena said. "A lot of these changes did not take place when these individuals were learning how to drive. This course helps the students to be refreshed on those concepts."
Tips for senior drivers
Get regular eye exams
Limit driving to daytime hours
Turn your head to see more
Keep lights, mirrors and windshields clean
Switch to a larger rearview mirror
Keep your eyes looking 30 seconds ahead
Leave more space in front of your car
Avoid left turns
Plan your route
Use side streets instead of freeways
Avoid rush hour
Read the fine print
Tell your doctor which non-prescription medications you are taking
Talk with your doctor and pharmacist about possible side effects
Check with your doctor before stopping any medication
Avoid driving when starting a new medication
If any medication makes you feel sleepy or disoriented, do not drive!
One of the first things that both courses cover is changes in vision as a person ages.
"As we age, our vision changes, and about 90 percent of all driving comes from what you see," Cook said. "A driver at age 60 needs three times more light than a teenager does. In our class, we have to instruct seniors on ways to compensate for vision. Most seniors will limit their driving to only daytime."
Ken Killby, volunteer state coordinator for Ohio for AARP Driver Safety, lives in Canton and teaches the AARP Smart Driver Course around the state, including in Trumbull County.
"We cover vision, medication and a number of things pertaining to the human body, which can impact your driving," Killby said. "If you notice that your vision is impaired, get your eyes examined, and if you are having trouble hearing, go to the doctor. That's why when you go to the BMV to renew your license, they ask you if you have any medical conditions and they check your vision. These impairments can inhibit you from driving safely."
Small changes in the car can help improve visibility for seniors.
"There are clip-on rearview mirrors that are wider and are convex and give you a better view on what is going on behind you while driving," Cook said. "We also advise drivers who have a handicapped placard to not have that placard hanging from their rearview mirror while they are driving, because they can block their rearview mirror and put them at a disadvantage. One thing I emphasize in my class is that when you are a senior, you need to do all you can to help you see well while you are driving."
Cook said another subject she talks about in the course is the importance of the right seating position while driving.
"Seniors sometimes sit too close to the wheel," she said. "Every driver should be about 10 inches back from the steering wheel. Drivers should put their hands on the steering wheel at 8 and 4. When you put your hands up too high on the steering wheel, it's too fatiguing."
Cook offers advice for seniors when it comes to driving during the winter months.
"With winter driving, if you don't have to go out, stay home," she said. "If seniors have to go someplace during the winter conditions, they should leave earlier to give themselves enough time. Also, if your car sits outside, clear the snow off of everything. That snow on your car will make you not see well while you are driving."
In addition to helping seniors become safer drivers, courses like the ones offered by AAA and AARP can offer financial benefits as well.
"The state of Ohio mandates that if you are 60 years or older and you completed a state approved course, you may qualify for an insurance discount," Cook said. "If you complete this course you may qualify for a discount, but you have to check with your insurance agent first."
Sena said the AARP course also handles the delicate subject of retiring from driving.
"We also talk about how to monitor your own driving and your loved ones driving and we talk about the warning signs of when to retire from driving," Sena said. "I know that many drivers are very good with getting their cars tuned up, but it's also about updating their own skills and maintaining safe driving."