Should Seniors Give Up the Car Keys?

Related topics: Safety

Senior driver

Many seniors are irritated by newspaper headlines such as "Elderly Driver Crashes Into Crowd" or "Driver, 84, Causes Fatal Accident." They ask why age is emphasized in these accounts, and point out that we seldom see "Driver, Age 40, Involved in Fatal Collision." They cite National Highway Traffic Safety statistics showing that the safest drivers are in the 64 – 69 year age group. They are right to be aware of the ageism inherent in the stereotype of the incompetent senior driver. Driving helps seniors stay active and independent, and many older adults maintain good driving skills into their later years.

But the fact is, the normal physical changes of aging, such as vision problems, hearing loss, decreased reaction time, memory loss, arthritis and decreased manual dexterity, can make driving unwise past a certain point. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the overall risk of being killed or injured in a motor vehicle crash does increase with age. In 2008, more than 5,500 older adults were killed or injured in a motor vehicle crash and more than 183,000 were injured. As the baby boomers move into their senior years, driving safety and mobility challenges are becoming an ever-more important issue.

The baby boomers are the automobile generation. They were born as cities spread out into suburban bedroom communities and car travel became the most common way for Americans to get around. "Just as boomers have changed everything before them, from schools to work and housing, boomers have changed the way Americans travel, taking to the road in their teens and living behind the wheel as adults," says Debra Whitman of the AARP. "The challenge will come when the generation that is turning the suburbs gray hangs up the keys."

How can our government agencies and families keep seniors safe on the road, or preserve their independence and mobility with alternate transportation? Here are six steps seniors themselves can take to avoid becoming a traffic statistic or ending up isolated at home.

1. Have Your Skills Assessed

It's not always easy to tell whether a senior is safe behind the wheel. A recent study by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital's Alzheimer's and Memory Disorders Center found that some seniors fail a driver test even though video evidence shows they are safe drivers. Study author Jennifer Davis, Ph.D., says that the test may ask them to drive in unfamiliar places. She says, "Taking them out of that comfort zone and placing them in an environment of formal test-taking—one which carries with it potentially life-altering consequences (loss of their driver's license)—may lead to significant anxiety, which in itself could impair their driving abilities."

Nonetheless, driver testing remains an important tool. Older adults should periodically assess their driving abilities to honestly judge whether they are safe behind the wheel. Many states require mandatory testing after a certain age. And though it may be a difficult conversation, family should talk to their older loved ones about driving safety. Family members have the right—and the responsibility—to be concerned about their loved ones' safety and that of strangers who might be hurt in an accident. They may need to enlist the help of an occupational therapist, geriatric care manager or other professional, including their loved one's doctor, who in some states can alert the appropriate agency to a potential problem. University of Colorado researcher Dr. Marian Betz urges physicians to routinely discuss driving with senior patients. She says, "These conversations often don't happen until clinicians see a 'red flag' which could mean an accident or some physical problem that makes driving more difficult for the elderly." Instead, she suggests, doctors should bring up the subject by the time patients turn 65—years before most would need to hang up the car keys, but not too early to investigate alternate transportation in the community. Betz says, "It's not just about taking the keys, it's about making plans."

2. Change Your Habits

As Dr. Jennifer Davis noted above, adjusting their driving habits helps senior drivers avoid the most challenging driving situations. If night vision has diminished, they can schedule car trips during the day. Busy highway and rush hour traffic can be avoided with some advance planning. Or leave the car at a Park and Ride and hop a bus or subway when traveling to the most congested areas. The CDC confirms that many seniors are already self-restricting their driving under those types of conditions.

The AARP Public Policy Report confirms that seniors are looking more to alternative transportation. The authors say, "As baby boomers continue moving into the empty-nest and retirement stages of their lives, they may be shifting some of their travel preferences. The trends in transit use show a steady increase in the number of transit trips per person. On average, boomers took twice as many trips on public transit in 2009 than in 1977, when they were aged 16 to 32."

3. Take a Senior Driving Class

Drivers ed is for high school students, right? Yes—but that's only the beginning. People of every age take refresher courses. We can all use a reminder to buckle our seatbelts…look in our mirrors frequently…leave enough space between our car and the next one…and use our turn signals properly (including turning them off when our turn is complete). Special driver training for older adults also includes specific strategies for dealing with the impact of the cognitive and physical effects of the aging process.

Sometimes the problem isn't physical: University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologist Alexander Pollatsek discovered that in many cases, seniors have simply acquired some bad habits over the years—habits that can be unlearned! For example, Pollatsek reports that cautious older drivers may get in the habit of peering intensely straight ahead. Training them to scan all directions lowers the risk of collisions. Pollatsek says, "A large part of not attending to the hazards at intersections is due to some strategy or mindset seniors have gotten into, rather than some problem with the brain. It's a software problem, not a hardware problem." Pollatsek, 71, hasn't had an accident since he was 25. "Like most people," he says, "I think I'm a great driver."

4. Get a Checkup

If you are a senior driver, be sure to have regular eye exams and keep your eyeglasses prescription current. Talk to your healthcare provider about physical problems that could make driving unsafe. And when filling any prescriptions, ask the doctor or pharmacist if your medications have any potential side effects that could hinder your ability to drive.

5. Have Your Car Inspected

Chances are your car could use a checkup, too! Make sure it is in good working condition. Watch for carpet and pedal wear that could cause the accelerator or brake to stick, or your foot to slip. Keep mirrors, headlights, windshield and wiper blades clean. Have your tires regularly checked for low air pressure and excessive tread wear. Even if your car passes with flying colors, ask yourself if it is still a good fit for your needs. Make adaptive modifications like improved side and rear-view mirrors, a back-up warning buzzer, steering wheel grips or pedal adjustments. If it is large and difficult to maneuver, consider trading for a smaller car.

6. Learn About Alternate Transportation

What buses, light rail and other forms of transit are near your home? Is there special transit for seniors in your area? If you've never taken advantage of public transportation, start exploring! Some municipalities even let you download handy apps for your smartphone to tell you when the next bus arrives and to help you plan your trip. For destinations not served by transit, use taxi cabs to fill in the blanks. Keep in mind that though taxi cabs are expensive, so is owning and operating a car; giving up the car means you don't pay for gas, insurance and maintenance. Set a trial period to leave the car in the garage and see how you get along without using it.

Says University of Colorado's Marian Betz, "It's now a public health issue. Driving is such an important part of living in America. Mobility is critical, mobility is freedom. But at some point most people will develop difficulties with driving, so we all need to prepare for it."

For More Information About Safe Driving

Perform a self-assessment for senior driving safety. Download the "Checklist for Older Drivers" to help you with the task. Here are several more great sources of information about driving and alternate transportation:

Older Driver Checklist

Older Drivers Driving Safety Resources from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

AARP Driver Safety Resources

AAA Senior Driving, including the AARP/AAA CarFit educational and vehicle assessment program

Free booklet from the Eldercare Locator: "Transportation Options for Older Adults"

Find more ideas about alternative transportation in the "Transportation for Everyone" puzzle.

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