In America, driving is a rite of passage.
From the age of 16 through a lifetime, getting behind the wheel means transportation, but it’s something more. It represents independence.
“I remember I baby-sat my cousin and in lieu of payment they taught me to drive,” said 80-year-old Harvey Mendelson of Schenectady. “The first time I downshifted to stop I figured I’d come of age.”
Mendelson has been driving ever since that day of baby-sitting over six decades ago, and has no plans to stop.
“In this area, if you don’t have a car you’re pretty much isolated,” he said.
The problem is, as drivers age, a lifetime of skill behind the wheel can deteriorate.
Naturally diminishing eyesight and reflexes, combined with illness and the side effects of medication can leave some senior drivers less prepared to operate a vehicle.
“It’s a pile-on effect,” said Dr. John Ruiz of St. Mary’s Memorial Clinic. “Take a person of 65 who has had diabetes for 20 years. If he also has cataracts, he’ll have a problem driving.”
That pile-on effect makes senior drivers the second most liable group on the road after teenagers.
This is not to say that a senior is as reckless as an adolescent straight from the test. There are other factors involved, according to a 2009 study performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“The increased fatal crash risk among older drivers is largely due to their increased susceptibility to injury, particularly chest injuries, and medical complications, rather than an increased tendency to get into crashes,” the report states.
While physical resilience can decrease, wisdom usually increases with age.
According to a 2011 AAA senior driver survey, 80 percent of senior drivers said they avoid risky conditions such as night or bad weather and times of heavy traffic.
“People who have taken it upon themselves to limit their driving in order to preserve their ability to drive at all, are safer,” Ruiz said. “The people I worry about are the patients that don’t understand their limitations.”
Jay Freud, 65, of Clifton Park, has adjusted his driving habits over the years.
“Mostly I drive wherever and whenever I need to go,” Freud said.
“But it depends on where it is and what the weather is like. There are places I won’t go at night because the lighting is awful and sometimes if there is snow and ice I’ll just stay home.”
Freud also has a four-wheel-drive vehicle he equipped with snow tires for bad weather.
“It’s a trade-off,” he said. “I’m older, but now I can afford a safer car.”
Safer driving habits can help seniors keep their independence, but for many drivers there comes a time to give up the keys.
The state Department of Motor Vehicles requires a vision test for most seniors at license renewals.
And the state can, for drivers over 65 with three accidents over a period of six to nine months, require a re-examination consisting of a written or driving test according to the DMV website.
Dr. Ruiz encourages family members who believe an aging relative should not be driving to bring a physician into the process, as doctors have authority to report unfit drivers to the DMV.
Statistics aside, Ruiz said it is important to remember that driving safety is specific to the individual.
“I might have a 55-year-old who becomes demented and can’t drive,” he said. “But my father is 85, drives to work three days a week, and is still totally competent.”