A senior citizen and stroke survivor, Don Dichard realizes he could be a danger to himself and others on the road. No failed test forced him to relinquish his driver's license – he still has it.

A senior citizen and stroke survivor, Don Dichard realizes he could be a danger to himself and others on the road. No failed test forced him to relinquish his driver's license – he still has it.

But the Bedford resident chose to forsake his driving privileges voluntarily, based on the self-assessment that his ability eroded enough that he didn’t belong behind the wheel. But giving up driving has handicapped Dichard. He is forced to find rides and rely on others for transportation. 

This is the driving dilemma faced by many seniors and their families: Loss of license, in some cases, can be tantamount to loss of identity.

Senior driving is a complex issue, with many variables factoring in to the equation. With age comes the inevitable deterioration of motor skills, but driving decisions also come down to things like lifestyle - proximity to loved ones willing to lend a driving hand and the availability of public transportation.

At the time of the 2000 census, there were 2,311 people over 65 living in Bedford. This number represented 18.3 percent of the population as compared to an average of 13.5 percent for Massachusetts and 12.4 percent average for the U.S.

Drivers ages 16 to 25 get into a large percentage of car accidents. The number of accidents decreases by age 35, and continues to decline through age 75. But then at 85 drivers again become accident prone, said John Paul AAA manager of traffic safety in Providence.

He believes a juxtaposition of skill sets accounts for the accident percentage bell curve. Vision peaks at 17, and there is a great reaction time. But there is no experience and they cannot assess risk. Then, for a senior at 80, there is plenty of experience and expert risk assessment, but vision may be poor and reaction time slow.

“What we have found is that seniors know very well their limitations when it comes to driving – much better than a 17-year-old. … The part of the brain that assesses risk does not develop until the age of 25,” he said.

Bedford Council on Aging Co-Director Carolyn Bottom said many Bedford seniors voluntarily restrict or relinquish their driving privileges, though others are hesitant to place their basic needs in the hands of others.

Bedford Police in a typical month file least one “immediate threat” to the Registry of Motor Vehicles regarding senior drivers. Chief James Hicks thinks this is probably in line with local and national trends, which are commonly used with this type of issue. Police stations do not have the authority to take someone’s license. That right resides with the court or registry.

“When it comes down to these types of issues, everyone has rights, especially driving rights,” said Hicks. “Those we file against have a right to a hearing and a right to be heard and file documents and evidence that there was something else going on at the time.”

“I don’t think we have facts and figures that say those at 50 or 60 – pick an age – are any more at risk than junior operators,” said Hicks. “The numbers indicate it’s about the same, but for different reasons.”

With junior operators, it’s inexperience, alcohol or whatever, for seniors it’s the loss of skills – of their sight, hearing and reaction time, he said. 

Holding on to freedom

When her family decided she shouldn’t drive, Ethel Alcaves decided she would prove them wrong.

“It was like taking my arm away,” said the 91-year old Alcaves. “So, I decided to take the test to shut them up.” 

She never did take the test, however. Her bravado faded when faced with the fact she would have to lay down her license before the test, and then perform well enough to earn it back. 

“Teenagers get the chance to take a second test, but I don’t know if I would,” said Alcaves, who nevertheless believes testing seniors is a good idea.

A senior’s family often first suggests that perhaps his or her driving should be limited. Sen. Brian Joyce, D-Milton, once a week gets phone calls asking how to respond to a parent who won’t stop driving, said Marie Blanchard, a spokeswoman for the senator.

In Massachusetts, driver’s licenses must be renewed every five years, with an eye exam required every 10 years. Joyce sponsors a Senate Bill called “An Act to Promote Safe Driving,” which would require drivers over 85 to pass a driving test every five years for license renewal.  

Many states already have age-based renewal systems in place. Massachusetts is one of the few that does not, said Blanchard. 

“The Senator tried to pick an age that was palatable. Most states start at 75. After doing a bit of research, that was an age that your eye sight really started to decline,” Blanchard said. “I can’t tell you how many seniors have contacted us to say they support it. A lot of COA directors support this bill.”

Carolyn Bottum said, “The seniors themselves seem to be in favor of it [the bill], and I trust their judgment. To us, the important thing isn’t so much retesting, but giving options to get around safely. … The major thing for us is we want to be a resource for people.”

Sheldon Moll, a Bedford selectman and senior citizen, agrees with testing in practice. Philosophically, his support wavers. “For seniors still living independently the loss of a license cuts deeply of their ability to get along,” he said. 

Putting elderly to the test

“There’s always some interest in the possibilities about testing older drivers,” said John Paul, AAA manger of traffic safety in Providence. “But that that begs the question “what is old?’ Statistically, 45- to 75-year-olds are among the safest drivers, and the medical community tends to think testing drivers over 80 is a good idea. 

“Medical professionals, and I default to them, say late 70s, early 80s. Seventy-eight to 82 seems to be the age where the mental capacity to drive begins to deteriorate,” Paul said.

AAA two years ago began distributing to each Massachusetts' Council on Aging a computer program called Roadwise Review, which areas like vision, reaction time and leg strength.

“It tests driving health, not driving skills,” said Paul. “What we like about it is two things. … When you exit the program, nobody has to know you ever took it. It’s another indicator of your health. We’ve had some pretty interesting results. A woman in her 80s tested better than her daughter.” 

The Roadwise Review is available at the Bedford COA, though not many seniors use it, said Bottum.

The number of older drivers involved in crashes is projected to increase by 155 percent by 2030, according to Deborah Quackenbush, Raydon’s senior vice president for virtual learning. 

Raydon, a Florida-based technology company, has developed a driving simulator program – an NDX model, which was modeled after a car with, an accelerator, pedals and wheels. The simulator, which uses a variety of virtual scenarios to assess driving skills, was at the recent AARP expo in Boston. 

“Those baby boomers aren’t baby boomers anymore – they’re seniors. That is a large population. As they increase in numbers and remain on the road. That’s what it’s about – keeping people safe on the road.

“We do not have an infrastructure in this country to – even if we were inclined to do so – to take people off the road. So, we want to do our part to provide training, assessment tools, refreshment tools. So that everybody that is a part of the highway user system remains safe,” said Quackenbush. “We sell or license the systems to private entrepreneurs, hospitals, therapy clinics, evaluation centers, schools. They’re all over the country, and they’re international. Massachusetts does not yet have any.”

'The Friendly Driver'

The COA has the Friendly Driver / Wheels of Life programs. The “Friendly Driver” program relies on volunteer drivers, and the Wheels of Life is paid for through a grant from Carleton-Willard Village. The medical transportation, sponsored by Carleton-Willard Village, gets a lot of use, providing 583 rides last fiscal year.

There are other public transportation options available to Bedford seniors, like the Bedford Local Transit (BLT). However, most present a problem of some sort. To use the MBTA Para transit program, The RIDE, one must be incapable of using general public transportation because of a disability. Relying on taxis or family members can be difficult because of traffic or prior commitments.  

Since seniors in suburbia don’t have access to the multitude of public transport available to those in urban locations, Donna Argon, 79, who used to work as a dispatcher for the BLT, believes those pressuring seniors to stop driving should provide some incentive – taxi fare or, perhaps, a gift certificate of some sort.

“This is not a city problem. People are living in suburbia longer and longer,” said the Bedford resident. “It behooves people in this town to support the volunteer driver program. That’s one way we can make suburbia more welcome to seniors.”

Bedford senior John Gerdes, for one, thinks the suburban shortage of transportation is no excuse for dangerous drivers. 

“I don’t think lack of transportation justifies unqualified people on the road,” Gerdes said.

“When you talk about a town like Bedford that doesn’t have a transportation infrastructure, you’re talking about a huge life change. I think that’s what makes it even more difficult for those who live here to make that decision,” Hicks said.

Relying on the bus

Erick “Andy” Anderson, 91, stopped driving after an accident three years ago. Now, he and his wife, Bea, 86, take the BLT five days a week, and rely on a nephew in Billerica and other family members for their out-of-town transportation.   

“The bus is a blessing for us,” she said. “You’d be surprised how many people use it. Mostly seniors. You might see some young people on it, but now when we’re on it.

The BLT stops service at 4 p.m., but that’s no problem for the Andersons. “When you can go during the day, you get tired,” Bea said.

For medical appointments, the Andersons will use the COA-provided transport. “They do a very good job,” Bea said of the COA. “It’s a beautiful organization, the way it’s run.”

Giving up his license was easy for Erick Anderson, after his accident and all. Bea said she’s had quite a few girlfriends who quit driving around 85 or 90. But she, herself, has never made the choice to give up driving. Of course, that’s because she never got her license in the first place.