Feature Stories

How Transportation Issues Change as Drivers Age

Cars are a way of life in Vermont, but sometimes, physical or mental issues can impinge on a senior’s ability to drive safely. The good news is there are a number of options for those whose driving skills could use a tune-up.

AAA of Northern New England, for example, offers a four-hour course called “Safe Driving for Mature Operators,” designed for drivers 55 and older. The course provides information on the effects aging has on driving ability, and includes an online option for those who want to learn at their own pace. Those who complete the course may qualify for insurance discounts.

AARP also offers information for older drivers including its own online driver safety program, as well as more traditional classroom courses held throughout the state. The organization offers tip sheets including “ten signs that it’s time to limit driving,” “vision safety tips for older drivers” and “helpful car safety features.” More than 90 courses were scheduled in 2011.

But all the tips and training in the world won’t help when physical issues are present, so regular eye exams and other medical check-ups are recommended. AAA suggests seniors take friends or family members for a drive every six months to assess their driving skills, and offers an online checklist for drivers to rate their own performance. Some signs that a driver’s skills might be deteriorating include failure to use a seatbelt, difficulty using pedals, poor merging skills, failure to hold a lane, driving too slowly, and missing traffic signals. These might indicate lack of muscle strength, poor vision, or lack of attentiveness.

If you think a senior’s driving skills are diminishing, there are steps to help them stay safe behind the wheel. Regular exercise, for example, is good for agility, strength, flexibility and reaction time and AAA has a list of recommended exercises for older drivers. Other suggestions include buying a car with better safety features, and eliminating night driving, long trips or unfamiliar routes. Some drivers may be more comfortable on routes with right rather than left turns, or those with well-marked lanes, light traffic, and convenient parking spaces.

For those who think their loved ones might no longer be fit to drive, it’s best to be positive and supportive and to phrase the suggestion that the driver give up his/her keys as one based on love, possibly including a physician or peer in the discussion. According to AAA, studies show older drivers are less likely to listen to family members, particularly children, who criticize their driving. If necessary, an unsafe driver should be reported to legal authorities. AARP has an online tutorial as well as eight Vermont-based coordinators who facilitate 90-minute workshops called “We Need to Talk” for families and friends of older drivers. The workshops describe how to tell someone it’s time to give up the car keys. Facilitator Dave Peters said the group is always looking for new opportunities to present these workshops throughout the state.

Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to get around Vermont, even without a car. The Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) provides public transportation on fixed routes and there are similar options throughout the state including Addison County Transit Resources, Green Mountain Transit Agency (serving Central Vermont), Marble Valley Regional Transit District (Rutland and Bennington County), and Northwest Vermont Public Transit Network (Franklin and Grand Isle Counties). There are also options beyond the fixed bus routes, but Laura Murphy, the Community Program Director for the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging (CVAA), admits the various options can be confusing. She suggests calling the CVAA’s Senior Helpline at 802-642-5119 to determine which services best meet an individual’s needs.

The CCTA contracts with the Special Services Transportation Agency (SSTA) to provide so-called “ADA rides” for people living within three-quarters of a mile from a fixed route if they have a disability which prevents them from getting to those stops. Jamie Smith, Mobility Manager for CCTA, said the ADA program is set up to mirror the same service area and times of the fixed route system at a cost of $2.50 — twice the cost of regular buses and roughly four times the senior rate. ADA buses must be reserved a day in advance and are available only after the rider completes an eight-page questionnaire including medical verification from two professionals.

By contrast, regular CCTA buses allow more flexibility and Smith said drivers rarely ask for ID from those paying the senior fare. Smith noted that 70 percent of CCTA buses are new and have low floors that “kneel” without the need for steps. The others have lifts so they are also wheelchair accessible.

Medicaid will pay for transportation for people who need to travel to and from medical services if the doctors’ appointments are also covered by Medicaid, but in other cases, seniors can access a federal program called Elderly and Disabled Transportation (E&D). E&D works with local agencies like CVAA, organizations such as the Visiting Nurse Association and some individual towns. The federal government covers 80 percent of the cost and local partners pay the rest. Riders are asked to provide a small donation – usually the equivalent of bus fare – to help defray operational costs. E&D can be used for non-medical trips such as visits to a relative in a nursing home, appointments with doctors or accountants, or even shopping trips, but priority is given to those travelling for treatments like chemotherapy or dialysis. E&D is not income-based and is available to all who are “transportation dependent.” That includes seniors who have cars but may not want to use them for longer trips.

Some individual towns have resources, as well. Examples include the town of Essex which has senior buses for those travelling within the town, and a group called Hinesburg Rides which has a cadre of volunteer drivers, screened by SSTA, who take seniors and others to appointments and shopping trips. In Grand Isle County, Champlain Islanders Developing Essential Resources, Inc. has been repeatedly recognized for their volunteer transportation assistance programs. In addition, organizations such as the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the Veterans Administration and the American Cancer Society provide some degree of transportation for their clients. CCTA runs three shopping shuttles which take seniors from 15 different Burlington area housing centers on weekly trips to the supermarket.

For non-emergency medical transportation such as medical appointments for those that are undergoing chemotherapy or have other medical issues, or who need to be medically  monitored during transport, Trans-Care Ambulance Service in Essex Junction offers 24-hour-a-day service, with fully-equipped medical support vehicles staffed by EMTs. The company accepts Medicare, Medicaid and most insurance.

Transportation-dependent seniors are making use of the options available to them. According to figures compiled by the CVAA, over 43,000 people used E&D, Medicaid or other social service transport last year in Franklin and Grand Isle counties and more than 41,000 people used these services in Addison County. SSTA estimates over 126,000 people used its services in Chittenden County last year. “These programs build community,” said Murphy. “They help people get to the places and services they need if they don’t have friends or family nearby or don’t want to ask for favors too often. It’s a way for people to maintain independence.”

Driver Safety Resources

AAA Mature Drivers Course: 1-207-780-6988, $20 for AAA members; $25 for non-members

AARP Driver’s Safety Program: Aarp.org/auto/driver-safety

AARP We Need To Talk Program: 802-888-3394

Local Agencies

Senior Help Line for Addison, Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle Counties: 642-5199;

Senior Help Line for other areas 800-639-2084

Chittenden County Transit Authority for ADA rides:

Special Services Transportation Agency: 802-878-1527

Central Vermont Council on Aging: 877-379-2600

Southwest Vermont Council on Aging: 877-786-5991

Public Transportation Resources

Public Transportation in Vermont: Newengland511.org

Chittenden County Transit Authority: 802-864-CCTA

Green Mountain Transit Authority: 802-527-2181

Addison County Transit Resources: 802-388-1946

Marble Valley Regional Transit District: 802-773-3244

Northwest Vermont Public Transit Network: 802-527-2181

Volunteer Services

Champlain Islanders Developing Essential Resources, Inc.:

Hinesburg Rides: 802-482-2778

This article was contributed by Phyl Newbeck.

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