Officials say some unsafe older drivers remain behind the wheel when they shouldn't
ED WING, Minn. - Jean Meyer knew it was time.
The Red Wing, Minn., resident said she felt uncomfortable and unsteady getting in and out of her car. She feared she would fall and nobody would be there to help her.
So the 82-year-old decided she would stop driving.
"I don't feel bad about it at all," Meyer said. "It was time to give it up."
Meyer retired her driver's license - she said she will probably cut it up soon - and gave her car to her granddaughter. She now relies on her children for groceries and local Faith in Action volunteer drivers to take her to the nursing home to visit her mother.
For Meyer, the decision to stop driving was easy.
Many seniors, however, refuse to put the brakes on driving, fearing they are giving up their independence.
"Losing your license, your ability to drive, is very devastating," said Bob Weir, who teaches driver safety classes for Red Wing Community Education. "The joy of getting your license at 16, you're not about to give it up."
That fear causes many seniors to continue driving when they shouldn't, said Jill Warren, occupational therapist at Fairview Red Wing Medical Center.
"Sometimes people have very little awareness," she said. "It's a delicate situation to talk about. Some people may not want to admit they shouldn't drive."
Warren and Weir agree that unsafe drivers span all ages, though loss of muscle strength, slower reaction time, decreased alertness and poor hearing, vision and flexibility all affect driving ability and become more common with age, Warren said.
Warren and Weir say family members and friends need to be proactive and have candid conversations if they notice a senior driver exhibiting signs it might be time to get off the road.
"Silence is deadly," Weir said.
Doctors and other medical professionals can also help someone realize it might be time to give up their license, Weir said.
In Fairview's occupational therapy department, patients referred by a doctor can have their driving abilities assessed. Experts evaluate physical and visual skills. A driving simulator assesses reaction time and monitors other skills, like whether a person can recognize road signs and traffic signals.
An average of 16 to 20 people have used the simulator the six years it's been at Fairview Red Wing.
"It's for their benefit," Warren said. "We want to keep people safe and on the road as long as they're safe.
"It's about safety and independence."
The participant's physician makes recommendations about whether driving is still safe based on the driver evaluation. Seniors can also use the information from the occupational therapy assessment to take more in depth behind-the-wheel testing that can offer guidelines for driving restrictions - like daytime driving only or no freeway driving.
"We live in an area with an aging population," Warren said. "Being in a rural area (the driving simulator) is a really valuable tool."
Weir said the AARP defensive driving course and refresher class offered by Red Wing Community Education is also valuable.
Some participants can receive an insurance discount for taking the class but Weir said the real advantage is that students all walk away from the class knowing how to be a better driver.
No license? No car? Now what?
Robin Wipperling, program developer at the Red Wing Senior Center, said seniors often continue driving when they shouldn't because they don't want to bother their family members.
"They don't want to have to rely on others when they haven't had to ask for such a long time," Wipperling said.
Weir understands that concern but said losing your license does not mean you have to throw your independence out the window too.
He said seniors should research their options. Red Wing has a public bus system and taxi service. Faith in Action provides free rides for people in need and Meals on Wheels can help with food delivery.
Weir suggests talking to other people who have stopped driving to see how they get around.
"So you can't drive," Weir said. "Does that mean you can't get out of the house? No."
Jen Cullen is a reporter at The Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.