Jack Levine: A life-saving opportunity for older drivers

Published: Monday, December 2, 2013 at 3:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 2, 2013 at 3:09 p.m.

I’ll never forget the call. It was mid-afternoon and I was engrossed in a writing project on a deadline for publication. My assistant shouted from the next office “Jack, this is a call you need to take.”

I grabbed the phone and said “This is Jack, may I help you?” The voice was strong and official: “Is this Jack Levine, the son of Ruth Levine?” I knew right away this was not good news.

“I’m a patrol officer with the Boca Raton Police Department. Your mother has been in an auto accident and she’s en route to the hospital.”

“How is she?,” I gasped.

“All I can share is she’s conscious, but further information will have to be provided by medical personnel. Here is the phone number to call at the emergency admission center ...”

I live in Tallahassee. Boca Raton is a seven hour drive, and any flights would not get me there any faster -- so I was in my car within an hour heading south.

Here’s what happened. A new high school was being built just a mile from my mom’s condo on a road that she used every day for shopping and other errands.

During the nearly two years of construction, a series of flashing yellow lights warned drivers of trucks entering or leaving the site.

My mom got accustomed to slowing down in the zone but on this one mid-afternoon the flashing yellow turned red. It was the first day of classes for the brand new school. She didn’t know that.

A teen driver zoomed out of the driveway. He had a green light and slammed into my mom’s car, spinning it into a sign pole. Her head was hit hard against the side window and she sustained impact bruising, but no bone breaks.

I visited later that night. She was resting comfortably in her hospital bed, but from that day forward she was never the same.

At age 77, without ever having been in a car crash in nearly 50 years of driving, as a result of that accident she would not be able to drive again. Her mental condition was altered by the head trauma, she remained disoriented in matters of space and speed, and her confidence was shot.

This unpredictable event triggered a series of symptoms which eventually resulted in severe dementia that lasted for the rest of her life. She passed at age 84.

Here is a fact that is a demographic reality: 10,000 people are turning age 65 every day in our nation and the great majority of them are active drivers.

That is why I’m dedicated to awareness of AARP’s Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, co-hosted by the American Occupational Therapy Association, scheduled from Dec. 2 through Dec. 6.

This annual awareness week is an initiative that aims to promote an understanding of how important mobility and transportation are to ensuring older adults remain active and safe in their communities.

This is essential for ensuring not only the health of the driver, but also is crucial for the well-being of their passengers (both adults and children), other drivers, as well as pedestrians.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:

* 1/3 of all fatal crashes involving older Americans occur at intersections;

* 35 percent of all traffic violations involving drivers 55+ are because of the failure to yield the proper right-of-way;

* One in four traffic violations involving drivers 55+ involves making an improper left turn;

* 15 percent involved an improper lane change;

* 10 percent are the result of ignoring a stop sign or traffic light.

It’s no surprise that the driving experience today is significantly different from even a decade ago – changing vehicles, changing technology, changing road rules, and ever changing roadways.

That change is often hardest on those who are farthest removed from their first and like only driving course.

AARP’s Driver Safety Program works to change that through their nationwide driving refresher course, with 15 million graduates to date.

Visit http://www.aarp.org/home-garden/transportation/driver_safety/ for access to a wealth of resources for older drivers and family members of all ages.

Knowing the basics has never been more important, and AARP Driver Safety is a leading authority on best practices for healthy and safe drivers age 50 and over.

During Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, key tips are shared on some of the driving challenges that most commonly affect older drivers, including:

* Best practices for sharing the road with other vehicles, including motorcycles and bicycles

* Stopping distance and merging

* Proper rules for roundabouts and stop-sign compliance

* Techniques for adjusting mirrors to reduce blind spots

I sincerely hope that no one ever receives the life-changing call I had to take on that fateful afternoon when my Mom’s lifetime of safe driving literally came to a crashing halt.

By understanding the challenges our older drivers face, we can all benefit.

Jack Levine is founder of the Tallahassee-based 4Generations Institute.

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