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A difficult conversation: Taking the keys away from mom and dad

John Joyce
  • Traffic Safety: Senior populations in the state and county are increasing, but not everyone over 65 is a safe driver.
  • Of the 711 wrecks in 2015 involving seniors over 65, nine were fatal. The number of crashes increased from 687 in 2014.

Windows down.

Radio blasting.

Best friend riding shotgun.

Many can easily recall the feeling, the ink still drying on that newly acquired driver's license, asking Mom or Dad for the keys on a Friday night, relishing that first real taste of freedom.

Parents still fall asleep in their recliners waiting for their teens to return safely after a night out on the town. But sooner or later, the time comes when it is the son or daughter who starts to wonder: "Is mom or dad still safe behind the wheel?"

The over-65 population in Pennsylvania ranks among the highest in the nation, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Depending on the time of year — the numbers, like the temperatures, increase in the summer and fall again in the winter — seniors 65 and older make up 14 to 17 percent of the state's population.

"York County and Lancaster County are two of the 10 fastest-growing counties in the state as far as the 65-and-up population," Center for Traffic Safety Director Barbara Zortman said. "Our population is growing, and so we have people who are living longer and driving longer."

Although the population has risen, the number of traffic crashes involving seniors over 65 has not increased in York and surrounding counties over the last few years. But the crash numbers have not decreased, either.

Zortman said of the 711 crashes involving seniors over 65 in 2015, nine were fatal. In 2014 there were fewer wrecks, 687, but 14 were deadly.

"They don't sustain injury as well as we do. They also don't buckle up as regularly as other demographics," she said. Drivers in their 70s and above did not grow up in the era of car seats and safety restraints, she said. Only millennials and the generation before them grew up with seat belts in every car, she added.

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The Center for Traffic Safety is working to address the issue through education and training. Senior driving is on its agenda for budgeting in the 2017 grant-writing process, Zortman said.

Meanwhile, the center has been working with a program called Car-fit that helps seniors identify safety concerns and tips that can improve their driving. A Car-fit program is scheduled for September. The hope is to help seniors maintain their mobility and independence for a little bit longer, as long as it is safe to do so, Zortman said.

"They are hesitant; they feel like everyone is out to take their license," she said. "But it's about keeping them on the road safely." is a website committed to educating aging drivers on how to stay safe on the road. The Center for Traffic Safety teams up with Car-fit from time to time — and will again in September — to train people on what to look for and how to instruct older drivers.

Some seniors 65 and up might have mobility or vision issues that will affect their peripheral vision and ability to check blind spots. Others might have newer model cars and not know about certain features that can help improve their driving. For instance, not only do most driver seats slide back and forth, many also move up and down and have backs that recline. Sitting too close to the steering wheel can be dangerous for seniors because of the way air bags deploy. So learning to operate the driver's seat safely and properly can improve not only their vision and comfort but their safety as well, she said.

The Car-fit program goes through a 12-point inspection.

"Making sure they are not crowding the air bag, making sure their rearview mirrors are adjusted properly. We had one lady tell us she did not know where her headlights were or how to turn them off and on," Zortman said. "Her excuse was she didn't drive at night. Well, that's fine, but what about when it rains? And daytime running lights aren't (sufficient) because they don't engage the taillights," she added.

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One website serving southern and central Pennsylvania is offering a program called Let's Talk About Driving.

Home Instead Senior Care recently completed a study surveying 600 seniors over the age of 70 in the U.S. and Canada. The study identified perceptions and habits regarding driving cessation, according to a news release.

The program Home Instead Senior Care came up with is geared toward steering the conversation with aging drivers about potentially handing over the key. Early signs it might be time to have the conversation are new scratches or dents on the driver's vehicle that cannot be explained as well as trouble seeing when backing up, confusing the brake and gas pedals and trouble staying within the lanes, the release said.

More information regarding Let's Talk About Driving is available on Home Instead Senior Care's website at

Pennsylvania State Police public information officer Trooper Rob Hicks said his agency does not have specific data available regarding traffic incidents involving seniors, but aging drivers do sometimes represent a safety concern to themselves and to others.

"Obviously as we age, especially seniors, some of our capabilities diminish," Hicks said. "While no one wants to lose their independence, there does come a point where people have to accept their limitations."

Hicks said that sometimes it falls to family members to recognize a loved one's limitations for them, and a decision has to be made to forfeit their driving privileges.

"(That is) for the safety of the individual and for everyone else on the road," Hicks said.

— Reach John Joyce at jjoyce2@yorkdispatch.comor on Twitter at @JohnJoyceYD.