turning the corner...a review of law enforcement programs involving older driver safety


The role of law enforcement in the aging driver arena is still largely undefined. What a community does, and when, is primarily a function of the community itself. Some jurisdictions — especially those in the “sun belt” — have larger populations of older drivers than others. Some communities have better access to public transportation or more efficient transportation alternatives. These and other variables have to be measured as an agency undertakes to serve its aging driver population.

The following programs provide an illustration of how sheriffs are pioneering the effort to address this component of their service to communities. These programs can be replicated and tailored to suit local needs.

Ross County, Ohio, Sheriff's Office

Ross County, Ohio, is a rural community where senior citizens face many of the same challenges while driving as in any other communities: difficult left-hand turns; busy intersections; old highway signs with small, faded lettering; increasingly heavier traffic; and other dilemmas elderly drivers encounter on a daily basis.

The Ross County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for the county’s senior driver safety — one element of a comprehensive senior outreach agenda is organized under the auspices of the Ross County Triad. One of the most prominent and successful components of the Triad is its SALT (Seniors And Lawmen Together) council. SALT councils provide a forum for discussion of senior driving and safety issues between a community’s seniors and law enforcement officials. The Ross County SALT Council marked its fifth year of existence in 2004 and boasts an active membership of 65 senior citizens.

The driver safety curriculum provided by the Ross County Triad was born out of the SALT Council’s input. The council collaborated with Sheriff Ron Nichols and brought the AARP’s Driver Safety Program (formerly called 55 Alive) to its senior citizens. While creating his own elderly driver syllabus, the sheriff learned that the core curriculum of the Driver Safety Program met his community’s needs. Rather than devote precious resources to program development and follow-up testing of a separate lesson plan, the Triad selected AARP’s program for the county. Sheriff Nichols said the program was easily accessible to him, was relatively inexpensive to host, and was tried and proved with AARP’s many years of experience behind it.

The Ross County Sheriff’s Office, in its role as a Triad principal, began hosting the Driver Safety Program in 2001. The class has been conducted following the AARP guidelines ever since, but with some special characteristics.

The first is that the AARP-certified instructor who moderates the training is a sergeant with the Ross County Sheriff’s Office. Having a certified instructor in-house reduces some of the logistical obstacles in bringing the program to the public. The sheriff’s office invites a trooper from the local Ohio Highway Patrol post to assist with the classes. They conduct classes in uniform, which officials believe adds to their credibility with attendees. Their respective law enforcement backgrounds make them uniquely qualified to address driving-related questions that may arise during the course.

Enhancing the information presented in the participant workbook, the sergeant invites guest speakers to supply additional information for the group. A local ophthalmologist discusses weakening eyesight, night driving, and bifocal glasses, pointing out how each can affect driving ability. He also provides pamphlets that address macular degeneration, cataracts, and glaucoma. His medical training and background allow him to answer specific questions about the medicines participants take, and how they might impact driving. And what may be unique, the doctor sits on the State board that reviews license revocations for drivers that have failed the requisite eye exam. Through this experience he is able to provide specific information about that process as well.

A public health nurse representing the Safe Communities program also speaks to the class. She emphasizes the importance of passenger safety, safety belts, and child restraints, pointing out that many senior citizens drive grandchildren and other youngsters. She directs class participants to the community resources available to help them with their individual passenger safety concerns.

The sergeant also supplements the normal class information with a variety of short videos relevant to the particular subject matter contained in the standard curriculum. His source for the videos is the Ohio Department of Transportation; therefore, the videos contain information localized and specific to his audience.

Finally, after the class has officially concluded, the sheriff’s office offers seniors the opportunity to drive a golf cart around a short obstacle course set up in an adjacent parking lot. The seniors are shepherded through the short maze of pylons while the sergeant rides beside them. Then they take a second run through the course wearing “Fatal Vision” goggles. Fatal Vision goggles mimic the visual effects of alcohol impairment on a driver. In this adaptation, however, the sheriff’s office uses them to drive home the point that some prescription drugs can interfere with a driver’s ability to safely pilot a car.

The Ross County Triad hosts the Driver Safety Program three or four times a year. The courses, offered approximately once every quarter, are held in one of Ross County’s five senior citizens’ centers. Typically, the class is spread over two days, beginning in the morning and concluding in the early afternoon. Each senior citizens’ center is equipped with a lunchroom, and participants are invited for a low-cost lunch.

The senior citizens’ centers, the sheriff’s office, and the Triad all advertise the classes through various outlets. The Triad announces the classes on the Web site it maintains through the sheriff’s office. The senior centers make announcements at meetings and via postings on bulletin boards. The sheriff’s office makes public announcements and posts information in public buildings. Each entity relies on newsletters and media coverage to promote the program.

Classroom dynamics and space constraints keep the roster at about 30 participants per session. The sheriff reports they never have trouble filling the classes. In addition, the Ross County Sheriff’s Office covers the cost of the classes, including the cost of participant manuals. The sheriff compared the financial cost of hosting one session of AARP’s Driver Safety Program to the cost of human life: “My responsibility as a law enforcement administrator is to save lives. This is saving seniors’ lives; $300 (the approximate cost for manuals) is pennies compared to saving just one life.”

Educating seniors is critical to its mission, but the Ross County Sheriff’s Office also understands the importance of educating its employees about the affects of aging. Law enforcement officers need to be aware of and sensitive to the needs of seniors the same as any other special-needs population. This is particularly true of Alzheimer’s patients. The sheriff’s office teamed up with a local Alzheimer’s clinic to train deputies to recognize dementia victims and how to effectively intervene with dementia patients they might encounter on the job.

Franklin County, Massachusetts, Sheriff's Office

Although the Franklin County, Massachusetts, Sheriff’s Office struggles with many of the challenges that any sheriff’s office battles, it still manages a successful older driver program.

The sheriff’s office directs the Franklin County Triad, which is composed of five area SALT councils. The Triad administrator, a captain in the sheriff’s office, describes driver education programming as one part of a broad system of outreach to the county’s mature populace.

Through its Triad, the sheriff’s office coordinates and delivers the AARP Driver Safety Program as often as the need arises. The sheriff’s deputies evaluate their need by polling seniors at a local senior center and when enough seniors express interest, they form a class. Class size is limited to about 12 seniors because of meeting space and instructor preference. As with the Ross County program, the class is held over two days rather than just one day.

The local AARP office provides the certified Driver Safety Program instructor while the sheriff’s office donates the meeting space and refreshments. Participants pay the cost of their own workbooks, which is about $10.

Franklin County is a large, rural county covering about 770 square miles. The county’s senior population is estimated at 10,000, with approximately 2,000 registered with the Triad to participate in programs or receive benefits. Managing such a large Triad is a Herculean task. The county’s answer to this challenge is a multi-faceted response that includes a simple computer database. When seniors come into the program, they provide the sheriff’s office with basic information including name, address, and telephone number. The seniors are free to share as much other information as they like, including:

  • Name and contact information for friends and relatives;

  • Name and contact information for neighbors;

  • Name and contact information for their physicians;

  • A photograph;

  • Their current medical concerns/conditions.

This database, invaluable in emergencies, is used to assist emergency responders as appropriate under prevailing circumstances.

In addition to collecting information, the Triad shares information with its enrollees, too, such as a booklet, Older Drivers — Making Changes for the Better. The publisher, Channing Bete Company (see Appendix C), describes this publication as helping “readers assess whether they need to make changes in their driving habits or give up driving entirely for their own and others’ safety.” The Triad also provides a community directory of local service providers, which lists alternative transportation resources for seniors unable to drive themselves.

Deputies, moreover, provide information to seniors any time they find an opportunity. In the words of the Franklin County Triad supervisor, “we always educate ‘em—drive home the point.” He was describing the philosophy that repeatedly mentions the risks senior drivers face in order to keep the issue fresh in the minds of the county’s elderly drivers. The Triad underscores the need for senior citizens to 1) be aware of and assess their own abilities, and 2) plan for the day when they may not be able to drive anymore.

Deputies are scheduled to make personal visits with seniors enrolled in Triad programs. Through this personal contact, deputies become aware of any special needs a particular citizen may have. During these visits deputies are tasked with noticing any recent or unusual damage to the seniors’ cars and garages — tips that a senior’s driving skills might be declining. When such a clue arises, the deputy can intervene in various ways, depending on the individual situation. The deputy may encourage self-assessment through the Older Drivers booklet described above or, for seniors with access to the Internet, several Web-based assessment tools. In cases where the affected driver has a spouse, sibling, or other loved one living in the same household, the deputy may suggest that someone else assume primary responsibility for driving.

Any intervention is designed to encourage the senior to consider alternatives to driving as their personal choice— not be forced into the decision by the sheriff’s office. Deputies are expected to act with compassion toward the senior and to preserve the cooperative relationship between their office and the senior citizen. Many of the enrollees depend on the Triad’s services and the deputies, so the office makes every effort to avoid alienating the citizen. It’s important to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office to retain good rapport with seniors and that they not be perceived as “bad guys” for taking away a senior’s driving privileges.

As a practical matter, though, not every driver who should cease driving does so voluntarily. When Franklin County senior citizens reach the point their driving is hazardous to themselves or to the general public, Triad officers take steps to remove driving privileges. When deputies reach the conclusion that a senior driver should stop driving for safety purposes, they try to engage professionals, paraprofessionals, or lay people close to the driver to encourage the senior to give up driving.

The sheriff’s office also encourages doctors to discuss driving safety with their older patients. They begin an open dialogue with the partners of the senior driver who might make living without driving easier for that senior. In addition, they make quiet referrals to the motor vehicle administration, viewing confrontation with the driver as a last resort.

One of the tools Franklin County deputies can use to avoid such a confrontation is a driving agreement. Long before the seniors’ driving abilities are questioned, a deputy might open a driver safety discussion with a senior. Following the discussion, a senior can complete a form called Agreement With My Family About Driving. In essence, the form is the driver’s acknowledgement that the time may come when he or she can’t make the decision to keep driving without help. In addition, there’s a place on the form where the driver appoints a family member who will, if the time comes, tell the driver when driving is no longer safe. It is especially useful in cases where a patient later develops dementia, as the form is completed before the onset of dementia, and includes the driver in the decision-making process.

About 60 seniors in the Triad database are Alzheimer’s patients. In these cases, the database includes updated photographs, because pictures have proven invaluable during a crisis. In any case where an Alzheimer’s patient gets lost, the sheriff’s office is able to quickly disseminate information, including a photo, to local law enforcement and other first responders. And in at least one case the Triad supervisor’s personal knowledge about an Alzheimer’s patient may have helped to avoid a tragedy. One of these patients was inadvertently allowed access to a car and in his confused state drove away. The captain knew enough about the patient and the patient’s background to predict the route the man might drive. The man was located by the State Police along that very route and was apprehended before he could cause harm to himself or others.

Another feature of the Triad’s program that helps elderly drivers is the File of Life. The File of Life is a magnetic envelope in which senior citizens can record emergency medical data. First responders know to look on the refrigerator for medical information if their patient is unconscious or unable to help them. Seniors are given a companion envelope, which they can keep in the glove compartment of their cars. Similarly, if they are injured in a crash or roadway emergency and are unable to answer medics’ questions, emergency workers can retrieve “File of Life” data from the glove box envelope.
Though this program has existed for years, it has not reached its final evolution. In mid-2004 western Massachusetts officials created a task force to study and address older drivers on a larger scale. The final composition of the task force has not been determined, but representatives of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office, the local district attorney’s office, the State Police, medical practitioners, and others attended its initial meetings. Officials at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office report the task force will not replace its efforts, but will augment them.

Douglas County, Colorado, Sheriff's Office

Douglas County is situated in the center of Colorado. It’s a large suburban county south of the Denver metropolitan area and much of its vehicle traffic is comprised of commuters. The latest census data put the elderly population of the county at only 4.2 percent and the median annual household income at more than $82,000. As a result of the community’s economic prosperity, senior driver issues take on a different complexion from the other communities detailed in this report. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office participates in a Triad, but its Triad doesn’t offer a senior driving course.

In addition to the Triad, the sheriff’s office participates in the Douglas County DriveSmart Coalition. One of the members in this coalition is Master Drive, a private company specializing in driver education. Master Drive offers fee-based driver education for senior citizens and the sheriff’s office can refer seniors to Master Drive when appropriate. The Master Drive curriculum is markedly different from the AARP class. For instance, a major difference is that Master Drive operates a driving track. Enrollees pay a fee for a one-day defensive driver curriculum marketed to drivers 55 and older. The course is called X-tend Senior Driver Refresher Course. Drivers taking the course receive the following training:

  • One-hour assessment;

  • Two-hour skills training on the closed track;

  • One-hour classroom instruction;

  • Two hours of individual on-street coaching.

This kind of training is more individualized and more costly. But for the time being it suits the community’s needs.

However, Douglas County officials are planning for the future. With 20 to 25 percent of the county’s population in the baby boom age bracket, officials project a future burgeoning with senior drivers. Through its close relationship with county and regional government leaders and with its community policing initiatives, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has become more involved in finding solutions to this problem as its population ages and age-related issues increase.

Each of the communities profiled here has created a senior driver program that fits its present needs. These programs also undergo continual reassessment and evolution as the needs of the community at large change.

For additional information on these programs contact:

Ross County Sheriff's Office
Sheriff Ronald L. Nichols
28 North Paint Street
Chillicothe, Ohio 45601
Phone: 740-773-1186

Franklin County Sheriff's Office
Capt. Howard H. Sheperd, Sr.
160 Elm Street
Greenfield, Massachusetts 01301
Phone: 413-774-4726

Douglas County Sheriff's Office
Capt. Brock McCoy
4000 Justice Way
Castle Rock, Colorado 80109
Phone: 303-660-7505