I’ve recently experienced two near-collisions with cars. This has shaken me up!
The first was walking to my car in the Kroegers parking lot when an SUV came barreling right at me. I jumped back up onto the curb breathless. Yikes! The driver continued to park his car, and I saw that he was probably 85 or 90 years old. I talked with him about him almost hitting me, and he really didn’t respond much. His parking job was way over into my parking spot, and I could hardly get into my car. I immediately felt anger, and then a sense of compassion for him, in that he was so old and probably just trying to get to Kroegers. How much longer does he have to feel useful? But, I was almost struck. I thought about taking down his license plate number but didn’t.
The second incident was when a car in front of me, driving south on north Main, was weaving all over the road and almost ran into me. As I was finally able to pass (on the right), I saw again that this was a very old woman driving helter-skelter down this busy road.
These are old people driving who shouldn’t be. I’m old too, and we all know how important it is to keep driving as long as we can. Driving lets us be independent, attend events, see friends and belong to groups we’re involved in. I can understand the fierce desire for these two elder people to keep driving, but it has become dangerous in these instances.
My friend who is in her late 80s has decided not to drive at night because her depth perception is not as good as it once was. She also has trouble with the setting sun in the late afternoons driving west on a clear day. Who doesn’t? She knows and understands her limitations now and does not want to endanger others. She takes responsibility for her aging abilities.
There are so many changes that can affect our driving. Vision deterioration is the most drastic. Both depth perception and peripheral vision are more limited, refocusing from one object to the next takes longer and color perception can confuse people at traffic lights. All of this makes it more difficult to read road signs, react quickly to busy road conditions and accurately determine distance and speed.
We need to hear well when we drive. Ambulance and police sirens and honking horns warn of danger. Most people older than 65 have some kind of hearing loss.
Motor skills also suffer with age. Muscles weaken, reflexes slow down and flexibility decreases. This all makes it harder to do things like turn our heads to make sure it’s safe to change lanes and quickly turn the steering wheel to avoid a collision. Also, arthritis is very common among seniors, making quick and fluid motion and maneuverability even more difficult.
Slower cognitive reaction times and being tired from not sleeping well are common in elders. And the confusion and disorientation associated with mild dementia and mild Alzheimer’s are certainly indicators of absolutely no driving.
Medications can affect driving by slowing reaction time, causing drowsiness and inducing confusion.
Colorado driving laws say that we need to renew our licenses every five years, have a vision test and take a road test only if we report having had a heart attack, stroke or seizure that could impair driving ability.
We all need to be conscious and responsible for that time when we just don’t feel as safe driving. I wonder how many of us will have enough wisdom and awareness to quit when we should. To have the wherewithal to decide ourselves when to stop is a big one. It will dramatically change our lives but will also keep us and others safe.
Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus to the other end of life and written the book The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.