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On The Road Again: Specialists Help Aging Drivers

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On The Road Again: Specialists Help Aging Drivers

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On The Road Again: Specialists Help Aging Drivers

On The Road Again: Specialists Help Aging Drivers

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106158069/106290834" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Finding A Specialist

The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists provides training for aging drivers and those with disabilities.

John Peterson Sr. has not been able to drive for the past two years because of an above-the-knee amputation. With the help of the National Rehabilitation Center in Washington, D.C., Peterson is learning how to drive with hand controls. Katie Hayes/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Katie Hayes/NPR

John Peterson Sr. has not been able to drive for the past two years because of an above-the-knee amputation. With the help of the National Rehabilitation Center in Washington, D.C., Peterson is learning how to drive with hand controls.

Katie Hayes/NPR

Glen Digman, a driver rehabilitation specialist with National Rehabilitation Hospital, gives Peterson directions from the passenger seat, which is equipped with secondary controls for emergency situations. Katie Hayes/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Katie Hayes/NPR

Glen Digman, a driver rehabilitation specialist with National Rehabilitation Hospital, gives Peterson directions from the passenger seat, which is equipped with secondary controls for emergency situations.

Katie Hayes/NPR

As we age, we often lose some of the abilities that make us safe drivers. Vision, memory, physical strength and reaction time may decline. That's where a little-known health-care professional can help out: a driver rehabilitation specialist. That's a therapist, often an occupational therapist, with special training to help people compensate for a disability that makes it hard to drive.

"We're about helping you drive safely," says Glenn Digman, a specialist who sees clients at National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. "Often we're the hero when we put a nice man on the road. And sometimes we're the villain." Because sometimes the driver rehabilitation specialist has to tell an older person that he or she can't drive safely anymore.

To drive is to be independent. Among Digman's clients are people with fading eyesight who need to test their night vision. Or someone who was partially paralyzed after a stroke, now learning to use a left-foot accelerator. Or it might be someone whose license has been suspended because of an accident or a flunked driving test.

A Driving Lesson

Digman greets his client, 74-year-old John Peterson Sr., who is waiting to go out for a driving lesson. "If you're ready and you're comfortable with rain, because we have rain today. How do you feel about rain and driving?" he asks.

"Well, the Lord sent it, so I'll take it," says the retired longtime pastor of a historic black Baptist church in Alexandria, Va. Peterson sits in a bulky wheelchair. He wears a cardigan sweater and holds a baseball cap that says "Obama" on his lap. He's here to learn how to drive using hand controls. His right leg was amputated as the result of complications from diabetes. He hasn't driven in two-and-a-half years.

His wife and daughter drove him to his appointment with Digman. But he can't always depend on them to get around "because my wife has problems with her eyes, and our children both live out of town," he explains. "Plus, I'm writing a book and I need to visit some churches that I'm writing about. And so driving is very important."

Each Session An Important Milestone

Today is an important session to determine whether Peterson will be one of those who can drive again, or whether Digman will tell him it's time to give it up.

At their first session, Digman put Peterson through a battery of tests to check things like vision, reaction time and memory. Then they started driving. Most of the time, Digman takes clients out in a car, but he takes Peterson in a big white van that has a hand brake and a hand accelerator and a keypad to control other parts of the vehicle. Digman is patient and low-key, and he sits at a separate set of controls on the passenger side.

Digman and Peterson have gone out on three earlier driving sessions. Two of those went well. But last time, Peterson changed lanes without seeing a bus behind him. Then he made a left turn onto a divided road and started going down the wrong side of the street. He has to prove today that he can drive without making those kinds of mistakes again.

But today's session starts off a bit rocky.

Peterson drives to a busy four-way stop. He carefully watches the other traffic, then goes through. The driver rehab specialist points out the woman in pink who was standing at the curb.

Peterson settles down after that.

Seeking Help

There are about 300 certified driver rehabilitation specialists around the country. Most work for hospitals, some for senior centers.

Often, it's a child or spouse who persuades the older person to see a specialist. Many times, it's for one of the trickiest problems, such as when an older person has Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia. Many people in the early stages can drive safely, though the driver rehabilitation specialist may help them set limits on their driving, like only going to the grocery store and other nearby and familiar places.

But often it falls to the driver rehab specialist to tell them to stop, says Susan Pierce, the president of the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists. "We have to be the ones to say 'no' so that the daughter doesn't have to hear, you know, Dad say, 'Oh, you're the bad daughter, you took my car away you took my driving away,' " she says.

"You want that older person to remember, 'No, that was the driver rehab specialist, remember — we went down to her office and this is what she said.' "

For the most part, insurance doesn't pay when an older person sees a driver rehabilitation specialist. The sessions can be expensive. Pierce says they usually run from a couple hundred to several hundred dollars for a two- or three-hour session. Someone with a vision problem may need a couple of sessions. Someone learning to use a hand brake and accelerator may need a half-dozen or more. Digman's group offers the sessions for much less, as the National Rehabilitation Hospital program is subsidized by a car insurance company.

Moving Toward Independence

After his two-hour session, Peterson feels positive. "It was very good. I did well," he says. "I was comfortable."

Digman agrees: "We were on streets of speed limits up to 45 miles an hour, up to six lanes in moderately heavy traffic. It all went very, very well. So you're almost up to expressway driving."

And that's next week's lesson: entering and exiting the highway. Peterson is one step closer to driving again.

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