Seniors should adjust driving habits

By Argen Duncan: PNT senior writer

Drivers age 50 and older have to contend with decreasing faculties as they age, but they can compensate to safely stay on the road.

People in the age group may deal with any combination of decreased hearing or vision, longer reaction time or changes in physical strength and psychology.

“My failing eyesight has made me become a more cautious driver,” said 86-year-old George Lees, who teaches AARP Driver-Safety Program courses in Clovis and Portales.

Roosevelt County AARP President Mercedes Agogino, 82, said she hasn’t changed her driving habits much except to avoid the freeway and Albuquerque traffic when she can.

Lees, a Clovis resident, said drivers 50 years old and up need to acknowledge that their faculties have decreased so they can compensate. They should also plan ahead to accommodate their needs when they come to a point where they have “no business driving whatsoever,” he said.

Signs people may need to give up driving include close calls, accidents that are their fault and repeatedly not seeing important things.

“The loss of vision, hearing and physical strength is gradual and can go virtually unnoticed until older drivers are faced with a driving emergency that they are no longer able to handle,” the AARP Web site says.

According to the Web site, the No. 1 problem for older drivers is failure to yield the right of way. To help, the site suggests compensating for side vision loss by moving the head and eyes left to right several times or asking a passenger to help check for traffic.

Agogino said night driving may become more difficult, especially if people develop cataracts. Surgery may help with cataracts, and some older people don’t drive at night, she said.

Lees recommended that drivers age 50 and up have a navigator to help look for signs or take well-lit or familiar routes.

As for reaction time, Lees said his students take 2-4 seconds to catch a falling yardstick in a demonstration.

“Driving at 30 miles per hour, in one second, you’ll travel 44 feet,” he said.

This means older drivers may travel 88 to 174 feet before they turn the steering wheel or hit the brake.

Lees teaches his students to allow a three-second gap between their cars and the vehicles in front of them For bad weather, he recommends four seconds, and for slippery conditions, Lees advises five-second gaps.

With hearing, according to the AARP Web site, about 20 percent of people age 55 and older and about 30 percent of individuals over 65 have impairments. Hearing allows drivers to notice signs of danger such as sirens, horns or the sound of a car in a blind spot.

“Good hearing helps drivers to be sensitive to what’s happening all around them,” the Web site said.

Lees said the radio playing or people talking in the back seat can cause problems for older drivers.

“Any noise in the vehicle is an encroachment on your capability,” he said.

On another note, Agogino said some people have more trouble multi-tasking, and that affects their ability to respond.

Lees said people should avoid distractions such as talking on the cell phone or arguing with a passenger while driving.

With physical strength, according to the AARP Web site, exercises to increase flexibility can prevent fatigue while driving and make tasks such as checking mirrors and steering easier. Increased physical well-being makes people better drivers, the site said.

What: AARP Driver-Safety Program

When: 8 a.m. to noon, March 17-18

Where: Community Room at the Community Services Center

Cost: $12 for AARP members, $14 for non-members

Details: Pre-registration is required. Law requires New Mexico insurance companies to offer a discount on car insurance premiums for three years for people who show a certificate of completion for the course. Course covers a variety of material, and is open to any legal driving age.

Information or pre-registration: Lees at 742-2271