Seniors say driving restrictions take away freedom
FRAMINGHAM >> For 84-year-old Eleanor Schneeloch of Holliston the idea of not being able to drive doesn't sit well.
"It takes away all your freedom," she said.
On a recent afternoon, she picked up Ralph Edwards, 90, of Hopkinton in her Toyota Camry to get lunch at the Hopkinton Senior Center. Edwards says he goes to the center almost every day, but relies on other people or the center's van because he doesn't drive any more.
"I can vouch for her, she is a good driver," Edwards said.
Schneeloch, who moved to the area five years ago to be closer to family, said she avoids driving at night and on major highways.
"I feel like within a few years I'll have to stop," she said. "If not sooner."
Many older drivers self-regulate their driving by staying home in poor weather, avoiding rush hour and not turning left.
As the population ages, older drivers behind the wheel remains a debate of safety vs. independence. Health experts say there is no way to peg an exact age for someone to stop driving, but there are many factors for seniors and their families to consider.
Locally, high-profile crashes involving elderly drivers within the past year have highlighted the continued debate. Oftentimes, drivers mistake the gas pedal for the brake or get disoriented.
Two days before Thanksgiving, a woman in her 80s driving a white Buick LeSabre careened across the parking lot at Cloverleaf Mall in Natick killing Ken McDonald, 73, of Hopkinton, and injuring two other men. McDonald was leaving Harbor Freight tools when the accident occurred.
The cause of the crash has not been revealed and the name, age and hometown of the woman driver hasn't been officially released by Natick police.
"This is an open and active investigation and no further information is available at this time," wrote Elizabeth Vlock, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex District Attorney's office, in an email to the Daily News recently.
In October, a 78-year-old Framingham man driving an SUV for the car auction house Adesa in Framingham crashed into eight people, dragging one man under the SUV before hitting a wall. The man underneath the SUV was seriously injured and was taken to Boston Medical Center by a medical rescue helicopter.
Framingham police filed an immediate threat form against the driver, which suspends the driver's license until a hearing with the Registry of Motor Vehicles to determine if it is safe for him to drive.
Nationally, two-thirds of seniors over the age of 80 are still driving and they are spending more time behind the wheel today than in past generations, according to the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Massachusetts seniors are involved in 20 percent of car accidents resulting in a median hospital stay of four days, the university reported as part of a conference this summer that focused on planning safe and mobile futures for older drivers.
As of September 2010, drivers over 75 in Massachusetts are required to renew a driver's license in person at a RMV or a AAA office. The operator must either pass a vision test or show a vision screening certificate.
State Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, said the legislation passed about six years ago was a good compromise. "The idea behind it is to make sure someone is physically looking at them," he said.
He said if an elderly person has trouble getting to the registry on their own it might spark a discussion with family members about whether a senior should still be driving.
"It is a very tricky area," Linsky said. "It is very difficult to tell an elderly person they can't drive anymore."
He said no new legislation is on the books, but could be in the future.
"There is no timeline," he said. "We need to be constantly evaluating if there is a better practice."
Edwards said he was told by his doctor about six months ago he shouldn't drive anymore.
"It wasn't because I am 90," he said. "My doctor said I have two medications that could make me drowsy. I could fall asleep at any time."
If it wasn't for his doctor, Edwards said he'd still be behind the wheel. But giving up his keys doesn't stop him from going dancing every Friday in Holliston.
"I have quite a bit of family," he said. "I have them take me here, there and everywhere."
He also uses the senior center van for grocery shopping and other services.
Cindy Chesmore, director of the Hopkinton Senior Center, said they keep an eye on seniors who are driving.
"If we see problems we have our outreach worker reach out to that person or their family," she said. "We need to let people know."
Amy Beck, the assistant director in Hopkinton, said the center hosts several safe driving programs to remind seniors about driving conditions, the rules of the road and reaction times. She said a lot of the programs are about self-awareness.
"One of the scary things for them is they feel like they can't do anything after hanging up the keys. There are options," Beck said. "We want to make sure they are aware of them before they get to that point."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends family members talk to older drivers before it becomes too dangerous for them to drive.
Janet Jankowiak, a retired geriatric neurologist and member of the Massachusetts Medical Society's committee on geriatric medicine, said older drivers tend to be good drivers but oftentimes they deny when they start having problems. This can lead to more severe accidents, she said.
"They overestimate their abilities," she said. "In this society we are so dependent on our cars. It is our ego. It is our independence."
She said issues surrounding elderly drivers continue to be a growing problem, especially with distractions such as cellphones which are a problem for drivers of any age.
When evaluating an older driver, families should consider vision, signs of memory loss, getting lost in familiar places and small accidents, she said.
"I think family is the best resource," she said. "There is no one good test. Screening just by age or just by dementia doesn't work."
Beth Blakeley, an occupational therapist at HealthSouth Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital in Milford, said it offers driver evaluations for patients who have had a stroke, early dementia diagnoses, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease, among other things. The facility also offers programs for drivers who need to be medically cleared after accident in order to get their license back. Often, the Registry insists on a doctor's note clearing the senior driver. But doctors often won't give such a note unless the seniors attend a program in which driving skill is assessed.
"The majority of them are here because someone else is pushing the issue, either a doctor or family," Blakeley said.
It's a two-part process: cognitive assessment and on-road driving. The assessments include vision, strength, range of motion, reaction time, memory and divided attention, she said.
She said the program has no authority to stop someone from driving, but staff members can report drivers to the RMV's Medical Affairs office.
"We don't physically take anyone's keys away, so it doesn't always work the way it should," she said.
Blakeley said people are typically outliving their ability to drive by 10 years.
Just before Christmas, a group of seniors gathered at the Southborough Senior Center to learn about public transportation offered by MetroWest Regional Transit Authority.
Carl Damigella of the MWRTA told a group of about 20 seniors about the authority's fixed routes and door-to-door services through dial-a-ride provided in town. He said the dial-a-ride is available to people who are older than 65 or disabled.
The service can be used for medical appointments and other activities, such as getting to the senior center, shopping or visiting friends. The authority also has a shuttle to Boston hospitals.
Pam Le Francois, the director of the center, said she hopes more seniors give the program a try.
"It does take a little planning," she told the group of seniors. "It isn't as easy as hopping in your car and going but it's pretty good."
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab is doing extensive research on older drivers and in-vehicle technology.
Lisa D'Ambrosio, a research associate, said a study was conducted this spring to get reactions from people 50 to 69 on those special features, including back-up cameras, blind spot detection and automatic braking.
"They liked having the assurance knowing they wouldn't hit anything or anyone," she said. "They felt it would extend or enhance their driving ability."
However, D'Ambrosio said parking assistance wasn't too popular because many thought it made them too dependent on the technology.
"None of these are replacements for the human driver," D'Ambrosio said. "But they can supplement the human driver."
Jankowiak said there is still a lot to figure out when it comes to elderly drivers.
"I think we need to be working together as a community and a society to solve these problems," she said.
While Edwards wishes he was still driving, he admits the decision to stop was probably for the best.
"I don't want to kill myself either," he said.
Information from: MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, Mass.), http://www.metrowestdailynews.com
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