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Older Drivers; Sometimes Better Historians Than Visionaries

In an essay that recently appeared on the Huffington Post blog, the writer described the challenge he faced when trying to convince his 83-year-old father, afflicted with mild dementia and now a widower, to retire from driving.  The adult child describes how several months of stressful dialogue on the subject were followed by his father’s failed driving assessment, and most recently, a very intense and emotional conversation between son and father, with dad’s final argument on the issue being a very sincere and frank “I don’t know why I can’t drive, I haven’t killed anybody yet.”

The older drivers at the center of this debate of age-related diminishing driving skills are from what Tom Brokaw refers to as The Greatest Generation.  My experiences have taught me that Mr. Brokaw’s assessment is very appropriate and accurate.  These are individuals filled with pride and loyalty, love for family and country, and a class of workers who possess a work ethic likely to never been seen again.

Unfortunately though, as America’s most valuable resource begins to age, their driving skills may begin to decline accordingly.

As a retired Ohio State Trooper, I jokingly (somewhat) like to say “I have yet to meet an older driver who didn’t think he or she was the best driver in the world”.  As the founder of Keeping Us Safe, I have had the good fortune to meet and work with many older drivers as they find themselves faced with diminishing driving skills.  My experiences have brought me to recognize a problem, and that is that older drivers are almost always better historians than they are visionaries.

Older drivers are typically very proud of their driving record, and rightfully so.  Many have driven for 60 or 70 years without ever having a single accident, a good talking to by the police, or even a minor fender-bender.  That’s an accomplishment that many of us would be proud of as well.  For me to go 70 years without having an accident, I would need to live to be at least 120 years old, which is not likely for several reasons not worthy of note here.

Residing in the greater Tampa area, an 86 year-old veteran of WWII and his wife enjoyed the routine of driving to church every Sunday morning to attend worship services.  Mr. “Jones” stated that he had never been involved in an at-fault accident, this after over a half-century of driving.  Being a good historian, Mr. Jones knew that this Sunday would be no different.  After all, his driving skills had served him very well up to this point, so why would they fail him today?

Mr. Jones and his lovely wife followed the same routine weekly; back the car out of the garage, drive to church, from there drive to their favorite nearby restaurant for Sunday brunch, and then of course, back home.  This particular Sunday was no different.  Back out of the garage, check.  Drive to church, check.   Drive to the restaurant, check.

Arriving at the restaurant, Mr. Jones pulled into a coveted parking spot directly in front of the restaurant’s large picture window.  In a failed parking maneuver, he confused the brake pedal with the gas pedal, and lunged his vehicle forward over the parking block, across the sidewalk, and then completely into the crowded restaurant.  Sadly, nine people, sitting at their respective dinner tables enjoying a Sunday meal with family and friends, were injured, two of them suffered life-threatening injuries.

Mr. Jones, like so many others, was basing today’s driving abilities on past performance, which is a very natural path for any one of us to take.  However, this paradigm needs to be adjusted if we hope to remain safe drivers as we age.  It is critically important (lives depend on it) that we shift our focus and attention on our safe driving skills from a historic perspective to more of a visionary approach.

When talking about older driver safety, past behavior is not a valid predictor of future performance.  According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), we are outliving our ability to drive safely by 7-10 years, further supporting the notion that we all need to improve our visionary skills, as we will not always be able to hang our hat on a historic look back on our driving performance.

For good reason, the men and women of the aforementioned generation are role models that we can be proud to have.  It would be a very sad day to lose a single member of this generation to a completely preventable automobile tragedy.  Considering safe driving abilities from a visionary perspective as opposed to a historical perspective will help us appreciate even more the long and successful driving career enjoyed by the contributors to Our Greatest Generation.

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