New Jer­sey’s se­nior driv­ers strive to stay on the road


Don Robert­son isn’t the type to let a snow­storm on the first day of spring — or his age — stop him from do­ing his ap­pointed rounds.

“Driv­ing means to keep mo­ti­vated,” says “Mr. Don” as he set outs in his SUV to pick up a fel­low Jer­sey Shore se­nior who no longer holds a driver’s li­cense.

“You don’t be still and you don’t get stiff,” adds the sex­a­ge­nar­ian New Jer­sey na­tive who once drove 2- 1/ 2 ton trucks for the U. S. Army.

“As long as you keep mov­ing, you can keep go­ing.”

With 20,000 Amer­i­cans turn­ing 65 ev­ery day, se­niors be­hind the wheel — and their abil­ity to keep driv­ing safely into their 70, 80s and 90s — is a hot topic.

Nearly 85 per­cent held driver’s li­censes in 2010, com­pared to barely half in the early 1970s, ac­cord­ing to Amer­i­can Au­to­mo­bile As­so­ci­a­tion ( AAA) re­search.

“We know through re­search that older driv­ers are among the safest on the road,” said Ja­cob Nel­son, the AAA’s direc­tor of traf­fic safety ad­vo­cacy and re­search.

“They’re most likely to buckle up, least likely to speed and drink- and- drive,” he told AFP.

Yet, with age comes the prospect of ill­nesses that im­pact on the abil­ity to safely drive — from mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion and hear­ing loss to de­men­tia and Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

More than 90 per­cent of older driv­ers are also on some kind of pre­scrip­tion medicine, the AAA’s Foun­da­tion for Traf­fic Safety says.

High De­mand

They are “vul­ner­a­ble road us- ers,” said Nel­son, sta­tis­ti­cally more likely to be in­jured or killed in a crash that a younger driver might walk away from.

Robert­son is part of a team of se­nior driv­ers at Care­giver Vol­un­teers of Cen­tral Jer­sey who give rides to other se­niors who can no longer drive them­selves.

De­mand is high. In Ocean County — home to 92 re­tire­ment com­mu­ni­ties, and where one in five res­i­dents is over 65 — a ride to the doc­tor or den­tist needs to be booked two weeks in ad­vance.

“The need for trans­porta­tion in our area is just huge,” Lynette White­man, Care­giver Vol­un­teers’ ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, told AFP.

Wait­ing for Robert­son at her tidy bun­ga­low was Mary Roberts, 88, who sadly re­mem­bered the day in June 2006 when she took her­self off the road for good.

She was the pas­sen­ger in a ve­hi­cle that crashed on the Gar­den State Park­way, a ma­jor north- south thor­ough­fare, throw­ing her head against the wind­shield.

Af­ter a week­end of rest, Roberts thought she was fine — un­til she at­tempted the oth­er­wise rou­tine drive to a lo­cal com­mu­nity ser­vices bureau where she helped man­age the ac­counts.

“I found my­self go­ing on side­walks and all over the place. I couldn’t seem to con­trol the car and I didn’t know what to do when I saw a light,” she said.

“Fi­nally I did man­age to get to the of­fice and I just cried and cried and cried” — and yet to be told by doc­tors that she suf­fered ir­re­versible brain dam­age.

“Not be­ing able to drive has changed my life in ev­ery as­pect,” said Roberts from the front pas­sen­ger’s seat of “Mr. Don’s” ride.

She is open to the idea of a robot ve­hi­cle, like the self- driv­ing car that Google is de­vel­op­ing with an eye in part on the ev­er­grow­ing re­tiree mar­ket.

Think Er­gonomics

“Look at peo­ple too young, old or dis­abled who can’t get around,” Google co- founder Sergey Brin told a tech­nol­ogy con­fer­ence last year.

“It’s an is­sue and a real chal­lenge for them,” he said, quoted in the Wash­ing­ton Post news­pa­per.

In the mean­time, the Na­tional High­way Trans­porta­tion Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion ( NHTSA) ad­vises se­nior driv­ers to keep er­gonom- ics in mind when car shop­ping.

Visibility, multi- di­rec­tional seat ad­justers, large- print in­stru­men­ta­tion and the abil­ity to eas­ily load and un­load a walker are some fac­tors to take into ac­count, it says.

Nel­son from the AAA cau­tions, how­ever, that “some­times older adults can re­act very dif­fer­ent to tech­nol­ogy than we can an­tic­i­pate.”

He cited re­search that found that a ma­jor­ity of se­niors wrongly be­lieved that adap­tive cruise con­trol would ac­tu­ally help them avoid hit­ting an­other car.

On­line and class­room cour­ses to sharpen the skills of se­nior driv­ers are widely avail­able in the United States, with in­sur­ance dis­counts of­fered to those who get a pass­ing grade.

Illi­nois goes fur­ther, re­quir­ing mo­torists over 75 to sub­mit to a prac­ti­cal road test ev­ery time they re­new their li­cense — which is ev­ery year for those over 87.

Over­seas, Ja­pan, the world’s fastest- age­ing na­tion, is con­sid­er­ing whether to force driv­ers over 75 with sus­pected de­men­tia to see a doc­tor and present a med­i­cal cer­tifi­cate to po­lice.

In Europe, where the num­ber of over-65s has been pro­jected to dou­ble be­tween 2010 and 2050, rules vary be­tween na­tions.

Ital­ian and Por­tuguese driv­ers face med­i­cal check- ups from the age of 50; in France, at­tempts to re­quire sim­i­lar tests from age 75 have been re­jected in par­lia­ment as “dis­crim­i­na­tory.”

“In or­der to in­crease safety for older driv­ers, many coun­tries have in­tro­duced some form of age- re­lated con­trols for re­li­cens­ing pro­ce­dures,” the UK’s Road Safety Ob­ser­va­tory said in a re­cent study.

No Hard Proof

“How­ever, to date, there is no con­clu­sive ev­i­dence that agere­lated con­trols are ef­fec­tive at re­duc­ing risk for older driv­ers.”

Over cof­fee at the Care­giver Vol­un­teers’ of­fice, 69- year- old re­tiree Larry Akins, who with his wife clocks 18,000 miles a year, keeps his fin­gers crossed.

“I’m hop­ing,” he said when asked if he ex­pects to be on the road for many more years to come.

“I had a heart attack back in 2004 and af­ter that I wasn’t sure about do­ing much driv­ing — but ev­ery­thing has pro­gressed and I’m do­ing fine.”


Don Robert­son, 66, right, smiles as he pre­pares to give a lift to Mary Roberts, 88, amid a snow­storm on the first day of spring in Toms River, New Jer­sey on March 20. Robert­son vol­un­teers for an or­ga­ni­za­tion on the Jer­sey Shore that con­nects se­niors who still drive with those who no longer hold a driver’s li­cense.

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