Don’t Hit the Road, Jack

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I love Grandpa.

At 80 years old, he is more energetic than my 20-year-old brother.  Maybe even my 5-year-old cousin.

As a retired elevator inspector with five children living in different states, Leroy Dickerson is always on the go.  In California, he tours vineyards while visiting my uncle Ken.  In Colorado, he goes skiing with my aunt Cheryl.  In Chicago, he is a regular at Wrigley Field.

Grandpa is known as American Airlines’ favorite frequent flyer for a reason – we never let him drive – ever.  The unanimous family decision happened a few years back.  He was driving from Florida to Illinois.  Calling himself a “road warrior,” he said he enjoyed driving long distances because he “knew a guy” in every city.

But when his three-day road trip turned into six because he couldn’t navigate well in the dark, almost hit a “wild” biker and was uncomfortable wheeling through the rain, my mother made everyone promise to take over the keys from then on.

“Instead of calling ‘Shotgun’ just yell ‘Driver!’” she said.  “Make him think it’s a new game, since we don’t want to hurt Grandpa’s feelings.”

Hurt Grandpa’s feelings? I’m guessing the cyclist wearing a reflector jacket is a little more upset after being grazed by Grandpa’s bumper.

And this is exactly the problem: we are too afraid to tell older people whose senses are worsening that they should improve their driving skills.

“We need a system in which people can be honest and seek help when they see a deterioration in their senses, but the problem now is that we are all of the sudden supposed to tell someone in their 70s or 80s, ‘You are not doing this right,’” said Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

When data is analyzed on a per-mile-driven basis, drivers over 65 years old are more likely to be involved in car crashes than any other drivers, according to a new article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Driving is like any other perceptual motor task, like sports, and if you don’t have any feedback, you won’t get any good,” said Normand Teasdale of Université Laval in Québec, co-writer of the article.

Teasdale and a team of researchers found that training drivers through simulators is an effective approach to adapt skills as drivers age.  Reevaluation to renew your license differs among states.  Some have vision tests and some, such as Illinois, require road tests. But Teasdale said driving simulators make up for what all reevaluations lack: sensory input, accuracy and sensitivity.

“We have been looking at older drivers from mid-60s to mid-80s, and all of them have shown improvements and told us the training helps,” Teasdale said.

Their method for using a driving simulator is a three-step process: first, the person takes a road test and an instrument captures their road behavior; then, the person uses a simulator to re-experience the trip, except this time they are coached and shown their responses; lastly, the person goes back onto the road without help, and from Teasdale’s results, improves.

Teasdale said he is surprised that there are not similar services for driving like there are for tennis or golf.  “You can call a local club to practice, and in the same day, you can have a session,” he said.

Lack of resources is only part of the problem.  The other part is us – we are in denial.  Especially since we have a booming market for supplements and diets that claim to prevent aging, Epstein said.

“By the time we are 70 years old, our brain has lost 25 percent of its mass,” he said.  “If we saw this as a natural process and faced it, like these folks are doing with the driving simulator, we can compensate for our losses.”

Until then, I’ll keep shouting “Driver!”

- blog by Annie Koval, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

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