Even with indications that they're no longer driving safely, older people often are reluctant to give up the car keys.
Following an accident Thursday in which an older driver hit five pedestrians after apparently accelerating onto a downtown Palo Alto sidewalk, geriatric social worker Paula Wolfson of Avenidas said she hopes to organize a community forum this fall on the issue of driving safety and the growing proportion of local residents who are senior citizens.
One-third of Palo Alto's population already is 55 and older, according to the U.S. Census.
Wolfson said she frequently counsels families on the sensitive topic of approaching an aging parent about turning over the car keys.
"It comes up all the time in my caregiver support group," she said.
"The best approach for discussion with a frail senior is to not humiliate them, but to help honor them for being civic minded and concerned about the safety of others, including oneself and one's family."
In fact, Wolfson thinks people who choose to stop driving for safety reasons should be honored for being "civic-minded, good citizens."
"I want to reframe it -- for people to feel good about the fact that they've made this decision," she said. "I think we should look at this and consider how we move forward as a community."
Wolfson stressed she could draw no specific conclusions about Thursday's accident -- which police said involved a driver in his 90s -- and said the immediate focus should be on concern for the people affected.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "An evaluation of the relative magnitudes of the crash problems contributed by younger and older drivers indicates that younger-driver problems vastly exceed older-driver problems.
"Younger drivers were involved in four times as many reported crashes as the older group. They also were involved in three times as many fatal crashes as older drivers," the NHTSA said.
But a 90-year-old driver was involved in a similar car accident in downtown Menlo Park last October, when a car jumped a curb onto a sidewalk, injuring six-year-old twins.
And, said NHTSA, "Age-related changes in vision make it more difficult for older adults to accommodate to darkness, recognize objects under low lighting conditions, recover from glare and search their environment."
For more information, see an NHTSA report on older and younger drivers here.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "Older drivers have low rates of police-reported crash involvements per capita; their per capita fatal crash rates begin to increase at age 70. Per mile traveled, crash rates and fatal crash rates also start increasing at about age 70."
See the institute's FAQs on older drivers here.
Many local agencies serving seniors -- including the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Avenidas and Little House in Menlo Park -- offer an eight-hour AARP "Driver Safety" course as well as a four-hour refresher course.
Leslie Schreiber, who will teach the refresher course at Avenidas Tuesday, Aug. 12, said many insurance companies offer discounted rates to people who have completed the full course. To register for the refresher (available only to people who already have taken the full course), call 650-289-5400.
The Palo Alto Medical Foundation will offer the full AARP Driver Safety course in two four-hour segments Aug. 8 and Aug 15. To register, call 650-853-2960.
"It's a very comprehensive, serious class," said PAMF education manager Becky Beacom. "It gives people strategies and can get them money off their insurance rates. It's something we feel is prevention, and it works for everybody."
Schreiber, a volunteer who has taught the driving-safety course for 11 years, said he typically polls his classes to ask how many are enrolled to reduce their insurance premiums and "most people raise their hands."
But when he asks how many people think they'll have to give up driving, "Nobody raises their hand. They don't want to have to think about that," Schreiber said.
Wolfson of Avenidas asked that people who are interested in organizing a community forum about safe driving and seniors contact her at 650-289-5438. She also would like to hear from people who have made the decision to stop driving for safety reasons.