Keeping seniors behind the wheel and knowing when and how to take the keys away

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FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - Sharon VanBruggen has been driving for more than 40 years. When she first started driving, she says it gave her a sense of independence.

"Freedom. I got my first car and I paid cash for it," she says.

Since then, a lot has changed for VanBruggen - and a lot has changed when it comes to the road.

"Rules are different. Faster driving down the highways – I don't like that. I wish it would go back to slower, I think," she says.

"As we progress in age, a lot of changes occur – as far as vision, reaction time, flexibility, head control – all of those good things that we use every day," says Lia Dobrinz, an Occupational Therapist and Certified Driving Rehab Specialist with Sanford Health.

That's where CarFit comes in. Seniors drive up and get checked out – all without leaving their vehicles. The free program helps older drivers figure out how well they fit their vehicles, highlights actions they can take to improve their comfort, and promotes conversations about driver safety and mobility.

“Today we’re conducting a CarFit event for senior drivers. Trying to give tools to some of our more senior drivers so that they can stay safe – as safe as possible on the road. What we find is that as people age, there are some issues both physical and cognitive that may arise that makes driving a little bit more uncomfortable and then perhaps a little less safe,” says Gene LaDoucer, with AAA – The Auto Club Group.

But sometimes, programs like CarFit aren't enough. And that's when experts say you need to have a difficult conversation with your loved ones.

“I've got some family members that shouldn't be driving. So I think it comes to a point in your life where you say – here's the keys, and give them to somebody else," VanBruggen says.

“If their family members are acting differently than they have before,” Dobrinz says. “Reaction time – how fast we can hit the gas and the brake. Visual scanning – looking around to see the things that are around us for safety. Memory – remembering where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. Problem solving. All of those things.”

“Basically, you just need to have a sit down open conversation with them and express your concerns. But also help to provide some alternatives for them. They’re afraid of losing their keys, their mobility, their freedom that they’ve had for many, many years. And to lose that can be devastating,” says LaDoucer. “But you know ultimately, what they want to do is hear what their alternatives are. If I give up my keys, who’s going to be there for me? As a family member, maybe it’s you that needs to fill in that void for them.”

For VanBruggen, she's not there yet. And she says opportunities like these give her more confidence behind the wheel.

"The mirrors are what took me by surprise, because I thought they were right all the time. I thought the mirrors were the right fit for me – but I learned something. It was good," she says. “I wish more people would do this. I think they’d learn to understand how to get in and out and how to adjust the mirrors and all that – learn how to be a safer driver.”

Within the next five years, one in every four licensed drivers will be over the age of 65. Older drivers are often thought of as being dangerous - but experts say, they're actually the safest drivers because they're more likely to wear their seatbelts, and less likely to speed, or drink and drive.

And yet in 2017, 6,784 senior drivers were killed in traffic crashes because of how fragile they are - and that number continues to rise.

“I really think it’s beneficial to everyone. It’s not just my age – every age. Even the young kids,” VanBruggen says.

Sanford Health also has a program where older drivers can be evaluated on their driving skills. For more information on that program, contact:

Sanford Rehabilitation Services Driving Program
1720 South University
(701) 417-4070