Don Robertson isn't the type to let a snowstorm on the first day of spring or his age stop him from doing his appointed rounds. "Driving means to keep motivated," says "Mr. Don" as he set outs in his SUV to pick up a fellow Jersey Shore senior who no longer holds a driver's license.
"You don't be still and you don't get stiff," adds the sexagenarian New Jersey native who once drove 2-1/2 ton trucks for the US army. "As long as you keep moving, you can keep going."
With 20,000 Americans turning 65 every day, seniors behind the wheel — and their ability to keep driving safely into their 70, 80s and 90s — is a hot topic. Nearly 85% held driver's licenses in 2010, compared to barely half in the early 1970s, according to American Automobile Association (AAA) research.
"We know through research that older drivers are among the safest on the road," said Jacob Nelson, the AAA's director of traffic safety advocacy and research. "They're most likely to buckle up, least likely to speed and drink-and-drive."
Yet, with age comes the prospect of illnesses that impact on the ability to safely drive, from macular degeneration and hearing loss to dementia and Parkinson's disease. More than 90% of older drivers are also on some kind of prescription medicine, the AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety says.
"They are vulnerable road users," said Nelson. "They're statistically more likely to be injured or killed in a crash that a younger driver might walk away from."
Robertson is part of a team of senior drivers at Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey who give rides to other seniors who can no longer drive themselves. Demand is high. In Ocean County, home to 92 retirement communities, and where one in five residents is over 65, a ride to the doctor or dentist needs to be booked two weeks in advance.
"The need for transportation in our area is just huge," said Lynette Whiteman, Caregiver Volunteers' executive director.
Waiting for Robertson at her tidy bungalow was Mary Roberts, 88, who sadly remembered the day in June 2006 when she took herself off the road for good. She was the passenger in a vehicle that crashed on the Garden State Parkway, a major north-south thoroughfare, throwing her head against the windshield. After a weekend of rest, Roberts thought she was fine, until she attempted the otherwise routine drive to a local community services bureau where she helped manage the accounts.
"I found myself going on sidewalks and all over the place. I couldn't seem to control the car and I didn't know what to do when I saw a light," she said. "Finally I did manage to get to the office and I just cried and cried and cried." Later, she was told by doctors that she suffered irreversible brain damage. "Not being able to drive has changed my life in every aspect," said Roberts from the front passenger's seat of "Mr Don's" ride.
She is open to the idea of a robot vehicle, like the self-driving car that Google is developing with an eye in part on the ever-growing retiree market.
"Look at people too young, old or disabled who can't get around," Google co-founder Sergey Brin told a technology conference last year. "It's an issue and a real challenge for them."
In the meantime, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) advises senior drivers to keep ergonomics in mind when car shopping. Visibility, multi-directional seat adjusters, large-print instrumentation and the ability to easily load and unload a walker are some factors to take into account, it says.
Nelson from the AAA cautions, however, that "sometimes older adults can react very different to technology than we can anticipate." He cited research that found that a majority of seniors wrongly believed that adaptive cruise control would actually help them avoid hitting another car.
Online and classroom courses to sharpen the skills of senior drivers are widely available in the United States, with insurance discounts offered to those who get a passing grade. Illinois goes further, requiring motorists over 75 to submit to a practical road test every time they renew their license, which is every year for those over 87.
Overseas, Japan, the world's fastest-ageing nation, is considering whether to force drivers over 75 with suspected dementia to see a doctor and present a medical certificate to police.
In Europe, where the number of over-65s has been projected to double between 2010 and 2050, rules vary between nations. Italian and Portuguese drivers face medical check-ups from the age of 50; in France, attempts to require similar tests from age 75 have been rejected in parliament as "discriminatory".
"In order to increase safety for older drivers, many countries have introduced some form of age-related controls for re-licensing procedures," Britain's Road Safety Observatory said in a recent study.
No hard proof
"However, to date, there is no conclusive evidence that age-related controls are effective at reducing risk for older drivers."
Over coffee at the Caregiver Volunteers' office, 69-year-old retiree Larry Akins, who with his wife clocks 18,000 miles a year, keeps his fingers crossed. "I'm hoping," he said when asked if he expects to be on the road for many more years to come. "I had a heart attack back in 2004 and after that I wasn't sure about doing much driving but everything has progressed and I'm doing fine."