Vermonters: Want to stay safe behind the wheel as you age? Be proactive
Driving: A lot of us do it, and as with most skills, our ability to do it well changes over time.
In Vermont, the number of older drivers is growing rapidly. Who exactly qualifies as "older" depends on whom you ask. And there are great 80-year-old drivers just as there are lousy 30-year-old motorists.
But one thing the data makes clear is: the older you get, the more vulnerable you are in crashes. It’s why experts say it’s important older drivers refresh their skills and be aware of how their age may impact their driving.
Paul Lawrence is 77 and lives in Ferrisburgh. He says he learned to drive before he was 10 on his family’s farm. "A lot's changed," he said with a laugh at a recent driver safety course.
He was one of a group of older adults taking the class at the Charlotte Senior Center.
“I just want to make sure I wasn’t doing stuff wrong after learning years ago,” he said.
Claire, a 72-year-old Jericho resident, sat next to him and nodded. She didn't want Vermont Public to use her last name. She lost her husband last year and says it’s made her less sure of herself on a whole lot of levels, including getting behind the wheel.
“I just want to make sure I’m doing it right. Today's driving is scary, and so I want to try to reassure myself a little bit,” she said.
While the number of older drivers has grown rapidly over the past two decades, nationwide crashes involving those 70 and older have gone down.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, better health, safer cars and changes to licensing policies in many states have prevented an accompanying spike in crashes.
Not only do drivers in their 70s now have fewer fatal crashes per licensed driver, but they also have fewer police-reported crashes per mile traveled than middle-aged drivers.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that older drivers tend to drive older, smaller cars with fewer safety features, which makes them more vulnerable when they do crash.
In fact, of the 76 people killed on Vermont roadways in 2023, 21 of them — more than one in four — were 70 or older.
It’s why older drivers are encouraged to take driver safety courses like the AARP Smart Driver Course.
It covers Vermont’s traffic laws and common motorist mistakes. It explains new technologies, like: blind spot alerts, adaptive headlights, lane departure warnings and collision avoidance sensors.
Baird Morgan is 83 and has been teaching the class for 20 years. He says just tweaking your car’s side mirrors can vastly improve a driver’s sightlines.
But he says the most important thing older drivers need to be aware of are their own limitations.
“I think certainly, as we get older, and I noticed this with my own driving, I'm more reticent," Morgan said. "My eyesight isn't as good, depth perception… my reaction time isn't as good.”
Besides hearing and vision loss, many older adults also have chronic conditions or are on medications that can make them slower to react or even drowsy. Age also impacts the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol and other drugs. Stiff joints can make turning the head and neck difficult which can make merging into traffic or backing up harder.
And it’s not just age that can cause problems with driving. Illness, amputations or strokes can impact anyone.
During the safe driving course, Morgan suggests ways to adapt. For instance if worsening depth perception makes left turns more challenging, he says map out routes where you only turn right.
If your vision has gotten worse, get it checked, he says, and avoid driving at night.
If traveling at high speed is hard, take slower secondary roads. And if conditions aren’t optimal, stay home.
“Yesterday, we had a snowstorm," Morgan said. "Do you have to go shopping? No, I can probably put it off until tomorrow. We'll do that; an older driver will make that decision and by and large they’ll act wisely.”
But what happens when an older driver doesn’t act wisely and drives when they shouldn’t?
In Vermont, an eye test is required to obtain your license. But once you’ve got it, the state takes a more hands-off approach. In-person renewals at the DMV are only mandated every nine years, and no vision or skills tests are required.
New York, by contrast, requires residents to pass a vision test for both new and renewed driver’s licenses.
So does New Mexico, which also requires drivers 79 and older to renew their licenses annually, and have a vision test every year.
South Dakota requires a vision test for everyone 65 and older and every renewal in person.
[See a breakdown of every state's license renewal policies here.]
Maine requires vision screening for applicants renewing their driver’s license at age 40 and ramps up their frequency after age 62.
Christopher Ireland, director of driver license services in Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles, says besides vision issues, Maine monitors more than two dozen other conditions that can impact driving, from hyperglycemia and respiratory issues to narcolepsy, mental health problems and neurological issues.
“In an aging, rural state with bad weather six months out of the year… and in a nation where the overall driving safety trend is going in the wrong direction for bad behavior behind the wheel, our opinion is that this is an important program," Ireland said. "Because if there are some people that are physically, physiologically, mentally or psychologically incapable of safely operating behind the wheel, they probably ought not to be driving.”
But Ireland admitted Maine may be going too far, and he said this spring they plan to do an extensive data analysis to find out if the state's additional screenings are making the roads any safer.
In Vermont, drivers are required to take a vision test to get their license. But Michael Smith, Deputy Commissioner of Vermont’s Department for Motor Vehicles, said he doesn’t see a need for additional vision or skills testing for renwals.
“I've been here for 33 years. So, you know, in my time here, I have not seen a, you know, a high level of issues caused by eyesight," Smith said. "That doesn't mean that they're not out there. You know, when I talk about data-driven stuff, there isn't data to support the need for eye tests for everybody.”
Smith says law enforcement personnel are trained to pull over motorists who appear to be struggling. Family members and doctors can also report drivers who they have concerns about to the DMV for additional screening.
But Erich Parent thinks Vermont could do better.
"I'm sure that there are lots of people out there driving with non-legal vision," he said.
Parent is an occupational therapist at Rutland Regional Medical Center who directs the hospital's driver rehab program. He helps people stay behind the wheel as long as possible, and he supports families and doctors deciding on when it’s time for someone to stop.
“And that's one of the things that we ran into when we first started our program, is we would have somebody come in, we do our eye chart screening in the hallway, and we find that they're not meeting legal acuity limits," Parent said. "And then we can't go on the road, because I legally can't take somebody on the road if they're not meeting legal acuity.”
Visual acuity is how eyesight is measured when it comes to distinguishing shapes and details. Vermont requires drivers to have an acuity of 20/40 or better with or without corrective lenses.
Considering how common eye problems are as people age, Parent said proof of adequate vision for a driver's license renewal makes sense.
But he said knowing how other conditions like diabetes, stroke, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia impact driving can be more difficult. That’s often where he comes in. Doctors refer patients to him when they or family members have concerns.
“It's a very touchy subject that I think can be made less touchy if it's discussed often and early," Parent said.
Most everyone will have to give up driving at some point, Parent said, so talking about it more openly and planning for it better might help — because he said not everyone sees it as a public safety issue.
“I have a lot of people who ... when I tell them that it's time to stop driving, they have that same perspective. Like, 'I don't want to kill anybody, I don't want to hurt myself, it's time to stop,'" Parent said. "And then I have other people who tell me to go to hell. 'I'm going to drive whether I have a license or not.' And if that person has access to a car, there's not much I can do about it.”
Andy Hodgkin said that’s why he carved out time for the driver safety class in Charlotte. The Hinesburg resident turns 60 this month, has his commercial driver's license, and has responded to crash sites as a volunteer firefighter.
In a state without much mass transit and few requirements by the DMV, he said drivers themselves need to make sure they’re safe behind the wheel, and he’s trying to do his part.
“Because it’s more important for my health and other people’s health, and it might even be a way to give back to the community and pay it forward," he said.
Hodgkin hopes other drivers do the same.