September 14, 2009
The Boston Globe
Peter DeMarco

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones responding to this year’s spate of well-publicized accidents involving older drivers: Across the state, senior citizens are filling driver’s ed classes to sharpen their skills. AAA of Southern New England has seen 150 extra people register for its Massachusetts fall classes. AARP, which offers its own workshops, is on pace to fill more than 60 classes across the state. Local driving schools are starting to cater to elderly drivers as well, offering seniors-only road tests and the like.

We dove into driving tips offered by such refresher classes two weeks ago, but there’s more to cover. While no one can reverse the aging process, seniors can become better drivers by following some common-sense guidelines, instructors say.

Be extra-cautious
When someone’s eyesight, hearing, or reaction time changes, that driver’s road habits need to follow suit, said Brandon Bogart, founder of In Control Advanced Driver Training, a private driving school based in Wilmington.

For starters, elderly drivers often can’t sit the way younger drivers do: to properly see over a steering wheel, they might need pillows or a raised seat.

Airbags are more harmful to older, frailer bodies, so elderly drivers need to sit at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel and drive with their hands at the “3 and 9” clock positions instead of the typical “10 and 2” positions, Bogart said.

“Some people drive with their hand on top of the wheel, which puts your arm across the center of the wheel. When you do that, the airbag actually knocks your arm into your body,” he said. “A 200-mile-per-hour punch to the face is not good for anybody, especially a senior.”

Since elderly drivers generally have slower reaction times, they need to leave greater distances between their cars and others on the road, Bogart said.

“Many seniors have heard the old adage of staying a car length behind for every 10 miles per hour. That’s totally wrong,” he said. “You need to follow the four-second rule, which means that if the vehicle in front of you passes a stationary object, you should be able to count four seconds before passing that object, or else you’re too close.”

Older drivers also need to look further down the road than younger drivers to spot potential hazards, said Dave Raposa, who instructs AAA’s Driver Improvement Program for Mature Operators. “Establish a 20-to-30 second visual lead. In a city, that’s two blocks. On the highway, that’s a third of a mile,” he said.

In general, because older drivers can’t react to changing road conditions the way younger drivers can, they need to take in more information before making decisions. In his AAA class, Raposa shows a video of a car approaching an intersection. The car’s left turn signal is on – but that doesn’t mean the car is going to turn, he warns his students. “Maybe they put it on too early. Maybe they just got off the highway and the turn signal’s been on for a few minutes,” he said. “That’s what happens – we make bad assumptions. It’s worth the extra two seconds to wait to see what they do.”

Accident prevention
Tweaking a car’s side mirrors to eliminate blind spots is something drivers of all ages can do to reduce the chance of an accident, Raposa said.

“Right now you probably adjust your side-view mirrors so you can see down the side of your car,” he said. “Instead of that, lean your head against the window, and do the same thing. Now your mirrors are adjusted more outward, and when you sit back you’ll see much more of that lane next to you.” (I’ve tried this myself, and it really works.)

Another way to eliminate a blind spot? Remove the handicapped-parking placard from your rear-view mirror when driving. “That can actually block the view of a person crossing the street,” Raposa said.

When choosing a car, elderly drivers should pick smaller vehicles that handle better, as well as vehicles that don’t have confusing dashboard instrumentation, instructors said.

“It’s really important for seniors to learn about new technologies in cars. Certainly [antilock] brakes are a great addition, and stability control is a great addition,’’ said Bogart. ‘‘On the other hand, some of the technologies can be distractions. [Studies] have found that it takes seniors four to five times longer to do the same tasks on those multifunction computer displays.” Seniors, or their family members, should adjust head restraints to fix the needs of the driver (“It’s not a headrest – it’s a head restraint,” Raposa said), keep brakes well-tuned, and consider amenities such as extra-large rear-view mirrors or extra-bright xenon headlights, though the latter are expensive.

Lastly, like with any new skill, it takes practice to become a safer driver, instructors said. In Control Driving of Wilmington and Champion Driving School in Brockton, among others, train elderly drivers to make emergency stops and the like on pressure-free, closed courses. AARP’s entire eight-hour senior driving course is available online for review. AAA, meanwhile, has a pair of interactive software programs for senior drivers: its Roadwise Review CD-ROM helps users measure their motoring skills, while its DriveSharp program, which resembles a video game, is supposed to increase driving reflexes.

Even without driving classes or programs, a senior can improve his or her driving just by having a reliable copilot on board, Raposa said.

“Massachusetts wants 40 hours of supervised practice for teen drivers [getting their license.] We tell parents to do commentary driving: Have the driver talk out loud and tell you everything they see. If there’s an orange construction sign ahead and they haven’t said anything about it, you point it out. You can do the same with an older driver to make them aware.”