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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This week is typically one of the heaviest travel weeks of the year, which makes it a good week to be examining road safety.

BLOCK: Yesterday, we heard about crumbling roads and the history of safety laws. Today, the people behind the wheel and one group of them specifically: older drivers. Drivers over 75 are more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than any other age group, except teenagers. Florida has a huge population of senior citizens and the state has had to address some interesting questions about aging and driving.

NORRIS: Can older drivers adopt new driving habits? At what age should people stop driving? And what should they do after they stop? Our co-host Robert Siegel went to Florida to find out.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We're inside a converted garage in Gainesville, Florida. Angela Black(ph) is at the wheel of an immobilized Dodge Neon that's connected to a computer. It's a driving simulator. Desiree Lanford of the University of Florida's Institute for Mobility, Activity and Participation, or I-MAP, helps Angela get comfortable.

Ms. DESIREE LANFORD (Independence Drive Coordinator, Institute for Mobility, Activity and Participation, University of Florida): Okay, we're going to begin the practice portion of the simulation.

Ms. ANGELA BLACK: Okay.

Ms. LANFORD: You ready?

Ms. BLACK: Yup.

Ms. LANFORD: Okay, don't touch anything yet.

Ms. BLACK: Don't touch anything, okay.

Ms. LANFORD: Just follow directions from the voice from here and on out.

Unidentified Woman: Please observe the posted speed limit. At the next intersection, continue straight.

SIEGEL: Angela, who's 66, is doing this as a volunteer guinea pig. The windshield of the stationary Neon has been removed and just beyond it is a three-screen projection of an imaginary highway. The simulator is one of the tools that I-MAP uses to study what skills fade as drivers approach their 70's and 80's.

Ms. LANFORD: You notice it's very sensitive?

Ms. BLACK: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Ms. LANFORD: Try to move forward and�

Ms. BLACK: Sure.

Ms. LANFORD: �stay close to the white line just as if you were driving normally.

Ms. BLACK: Ooh.

(Soundbite of sirens)

Ms. BLACK: Oh, my goodness.

Ms. LANFORD: Might as well keep going.

Ms. BLACK: Oh, my heavens. That - I didn't get�

Ms. LANFORD: She just ran through a red light.

SIEGEL: The teenagers who got their first drivers licenses in 1955 and felt like they had just grown wings are now pushing 70, and someday, they'll face the prospect of getting their wings clipped. That is not I-MAP's mission. The institute is thinking about how to make driving easier for seniors. They advise older drivers on choosing an age-appropriate car. Think wider mirrors, bigger knobs and a simpler dashboard. And they're not just interested in car and driver, they study the roads too.

Sherrilene Classen of I-MAP says they've found several features that make one road more older driver-friendly than another.

Dr. SHERRILENE CLASSEN (Director, Institute for Mobility, Activity and Participation, University of Florida): The shoulder of the road is actually wider, so that you've got a wider margin of error if you wanted. The second thing that we look at was when you make a left turn that there's a protected left turn lane, so you can pull out into the lane, so that improves your sight visibility. One of the other intersections had to do with getting a green arrow to make a turn, so the driver did not have to make the decision on when is it safe to assume the gap. The arrow was there so they had the right of way.

The fourth thing had to do with right turns, and that was basically making sure that there is a right turn without having to make a stop, that the right lane just merges with the oncoming traffic.

(Soundbite of an AARP driving course video)

Unidentified Man: If the first sign of trouble is the brake lights on the car ahead, it may be too late to avoid a crash.

(Soundbite of car crash)

SIEGEL: AARP is active in helping older drivers.

Unidentified Man: In the city, look at least a block ahead and look a quarter of a mile ahead on the highway, which is about 12 seconds ahead�

SIEGEL: This is from a video they show in a course that they give. Seniors who take it can knock some dollars off their car insurance. I met Jean Thomas(ph), a retired teacher, and Robert James(ph), a retired law enforcement officer, right after they had taken the course in Gainesville, Florida. They're both 75.

Mr. ROBERT JAMES: I've been driving since I was 14. I still drive. I even ride a motorcycle. So I really think I do pretty good, but it might be better to ask somebody that was riding with me what they thought.

SIEGEL: Jean, you're driving. Think you have the same command at the wheel that you had long ago?

Ms. JEAN THOMAS: I think that I'm a good driver. And I've been told I'm a good driver. But I am more cautious than I used to be, and I like to stay more in areas where I'm familiar than I did when I was younger.

SIEGEL: Do either of you - has either of you thought about or talk much about a moment down the road when there'll come sometime when you say, all right, that's it. I don't drive anymore or I stop driving a lot?

Ms. THOMAS: I think about it but I don't feel that it's imminent, so I haven't really made any specific plans for it.

Mr. JAMES: I haven't thought about it that much but I know the time's coming. You know, I can remember years ago, there was an elderly man that he didn't drive on the road but he could drive his tractor. And his wife would ride on the back of the tractor. He couldn't see well. But I hope I don't ever get to that point.

SIEGEL: And a few moments later, Mr. James put on his helmet, snapped the chin strap and got on his 2007 Suzuki Burgman.

Mr. JAMES: So you flip the (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of an ignition)

SIEGEL: Robert James looks trim and in command on his bike. But a lot of older drivers don't notice how much they have changed physically, how much driving has changed and what they can do to adjust.

Fran Carlin-Rogers is a consultant on senior transportation in Orlando, who does car fits for older drivers. She tries to help them cope behind the wheel with some common signs of age. For example, she asks them: Are you sitting too far forward when you drive to make up for getting a little shorter?

Ms. FRAN CARLIN-ROGERS (President, Carlin Rogers Consulting): Are you sitting far enough back from the steering wheel so that if you're in an accident and the air bag goes off, you're not too close so that you're going to be seriously injured by that air bag.

SIEGEL: Or are you not using the seat belt because it's tough to reach back that far?

Ms. CARLIN-ROGERS: If I have some arthritis or a little bursitis in my shoulder, it's a little harder to reach that seat belt and grab it. And there are some off the shelf gadgets that make those kinds of things easier.

SIEGEL: And she says older drivers often need help positioning their rearview mirrors.

Ms. CARLIN-ROGERS: Big issue. The way mirrors are recommended to be positioned now are dramatically different than the way all of us learned to drive. Because the roads are so much more complicated, there's much more traffic than we were young drivers, we really want to have mirrors that are pulled out. And so at CarFit, we have a little exercise where we make a judgment about rearview mirrors, the outside mirrors and perhaps most importantly, blind spots.

SIEGEL: These are programs to help older drivers continue driving. Florida's Grand Driver Program is about getting older drivers and other impaired drivers to stop driving.

Sandra Lambert is in charge of drivers' licenses in the state capital, Tallahassee.

Ms. SANDRA LAMBERT (Director, Division of Driver Licenses): Someone - your family member, your physician, perhaps a law enforcement officer - observes something and that's when our process of referring for us to take a look at you goes into play.

SIEGEL: It's a confidential tip. A doctor, a neighbor or an adult child might tell them, I don't think Mr. Gold is driving safely anymore. And Mr. Gold won't be told who dropped a dime on him. But most often, it's the police.

Ms. LAMBERT: Law enforcement officers typically get called to the scene of a crash, even if it's a minor crash, and they observe something with that driver and that's when they - on the crash report, there is a section that they can refer that driver for us to take another look.

SIEGEL: Another look could mean a new written test or a new road test, and that could mean the driver losing his or her license. But Sandra Lambert says it's not always an either/or, drive or don't drive question.

Ms. LAMBERT: We want to preserve a senior's dignity and their independence but we want to have highway safety. So if we can evaluate a senior or anyone that's a high-risk driver and determine that, you know, they can go to their doctor, their grocery store, their church, because it's all within a safe driving distance on back roads within five miles of their home, we can limit their driving. We can put a restriction on their driver license. It gives them that independence but it keeps them out of harm's way, and it keeps them from getting into high-risk situations where they may harm somebody else.

SIEGEL: Because that's a psychologically high stakes encounter�

Ms. LAMBERT: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: �between the other person from the state and the older driver, can I still drive? That's a big question.

Ms. LAMBERT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: You said dignity is at stake.

Ms. LAMBERT: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: And also coping with life every day.

Ms. LAMBERT: And in Florida, we don't have a wonderful mass transit system so we encourage everyone - not just our seniors - but we encourage everyone to have a driving retirement plan.

I'll give you a good example. When my father could no longer drive, my mother - and my mother never drove - sold the car but invested the money for taxi cabs. And they never stopped going where they always went. But they used that money that they had invested for their transportation.

SIEGEL: If Sandra Lambert's parents had lived in Orlando, they would have had another choice.

Mr. THADDEUS SEYMOUR (Board Member, Independent Transportation Network): Ms. Morrison(ph), good morning. I'm your ITN driver. What a wonderful location. How long have you lived on Lake Shore Drive?

Ms. JANE MORRISON: Half a century.

Mr. SEYMOUR: Wow.

SIEGEL: The passenger, Jane Morrison, had a doctor's appointment and she needed a ride. The driver, Thaddeus Seymour, has a car. He's the retired president of nearby Rollins College. And at age 81, he's still driving.

Mr. SEYMOUR: Now that's kind of hard. Can you reach that all right?

Ms. MORRISON: Yeah, I've got to get it turned right in there.

Mr. SEYMOUR: There we go. Good.

Ms. MORRISON: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ITN, the Independent Transportation Network, has been operating in Orlando for three years. It's part of a national organization that started in Maine. It's a co-op. Volunteer drivers like Mr. Seymour get credit for rides that they may need later. The relationship between passenger and driver is not commercial. In fact, it's pretty close to neighborly.

Mr. SEYMOUR: Don Feeney(ph) lived�

Ms. MORRISON: Oh yeah, he did, over on Lake Sue(ph).

Mr. SEYMOUR: And he went to Rollins.

Ms. MORRISON: He did?

Mr. SEYMOUR: He played football at Rollins in 1970.

Ms. MORRISON: Is that right?

SIEGEL: Seymour not only picks up and delivers people a few times a week, he serves on the local ITN board. Seniors like Jane Morrison, who need rides, set up prepaid personal accounts, and they get a monthly statement. The ride costs about half what a taxi would. Her decision to stop driving was a combination of medical necessity and then discomfort.

Ms. MORRISON: Well, I had to because I have a neurological disease. It's caused me to go blind in one eye, totally blind, and then I had a cataract form on my good eye, and then after I had it done, they told me I could drive again, I could pass the test, so - but then I hadn't been driving in so long that I lost confidence in myself and driving, and traffic had gotten so much heavier by then. So I just gave it up. But I'm very pleased with ITN. I really am.

SIEGEL: You've been using this service a lot, the driver service?

Ms. MORRISON: I've been using it, I guess, a year and a half, two years, something like that. Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: It beats calling a cab?

Ms. MORRISON: Oh, I don't know. I never called a cab. I don't know. I don't want that experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Thad Seymour says this is not just about transportation.

Mr. SEYMOUR: The biggest challenge for older adults is depression, which comes from isolation, which comes from the lack of transportation, the inability to continue the engagement that has been a pattern of their lives.

SIEGEL: It is a quality of life question, and it's also a quantity of life question. A University of Florida study predicts that within 15 years, one driver in four all over the country will be over age 65.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: That's our co-host Robert Siegel. Our series On the Road to Safety continues tomorrow with a story on teenage drivers and why young males are more likely to be involved in fatal crashes. You can listen to all the reports in the series if you roll on over to our Web site. That's npr.org.

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