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The Wheel Thing: Too old to drive? How to tell

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Soon a quarter of the nation's drivers will be over 65.  When is it time to pull off the road?
Laura Bloom
Soon a quarter of the nation's drivers will be over 65. When is it time to pull off the road?

Within a decade a quarter of all drivers in the U. S. will be over 65. Some help on understanding if you, or someone you love, needs to hang up the keys.

Too old to drive? >>

For several decades, highway safety efforts have been focused primarily on teen drivers. They are much more likely to be involved in accidents, and also more likely to die in car crashes.

But at the other end of life's spectrum, far less is known about older drivers. Motorists over 65 are more likely to be injured or die in collisions than their counterparts who are just a few years younger. In fact, statistics show a 70-year-old is four times as likely to die than a 20-year-old in an accident of the same intensity.

Beyond that, there's little hard data about the concrete effects aging may have on the operation of a vehicle.

An unprecedented study hopes to shed some light on the nation's senior drivers, who will soon make up a quarter of all those behind the wheel.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety will follow 3,000 drivers, between the ages of 65 and 79, for five years. The Foundation has enlisted researchers from institutions such as Columbia, Johns Hopkins and UC-San Diego. Drivers will be interviewed, their medical history studied, and their cars will be fitted with GPS tracking devices.

Researchers will focus on a variety of functions that can decline with age, including vision, cognitive function and motor skills. They'll also look at the effects of common medications on driving ability.  

Dr. Emmy Betz of the University of Colorado Medical School is one of the lead investigators in the study.  She applauds the strides society has made in cutting death rates for teen drivers.

“Unfortunately, it’s much harder at the other end of the spectrum but equally important," says Betz. "Driving is so important for older adults because it’s the primary means of mobility.”

Which makes the question of when to take the keys away particularly tricky. Betz and the other researchers hope their work will lead to programs and protocols that help older people continue to drive successfully, and make it easier to understand when it's time to step away from the wheel.

Quick facts about drivers 65+

  • They are the fastest-growing population of drivers
  • 25 percent of all U.S. drivers will be 65 or older by 2025
  • They have an overall crash rate comparable to 20- and 30-year-old drivers
  • They have a higher death rate per mile driven than any other group
  • 95 percent use medications that may impair driving


SOURCE: Automobile Association of America

Driving observations to determine if a senior should still drive:

Pluses:

  • stops at all stop signs and looks both ways
  • stops at all red lights
  • appropriately yields the right of way
  • responds properly to other vehicles, motorcyclists, bicyclists, pedestrians and road hazards
  • merges and changes lanes safely
  • stays in the lane when turning and driving straight


Minuses:

  • slowing or stopping inappropriately, such as at green lights or in intersections
  • driving too fast for road conditions
  • driving so slowly as to impeded the safe flow of traffic
  • driving aggressively
  • getting lost routinely on routes that should be familiar for the driver


SOURCE: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Non-driving observations to determine if a senior should still drive:

  • forgetfulness
  • unusual or excessive agitation
  • confusion and disorientation
  • loss of coordination and trouble with stiffness in joints
  • trouble walking, swallowing, hearing or following verbal instructions
  • dizziness when changing positions, tripping and falling
  • shortness of breath and general fatigue
  • difficulty following verbal instructions and/or giving inappropriate responses to those instructions


SOURCE: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Recommendations to increase 65+ driver safety:

  • exercise to improve strength and flexibility
  • ask doctor or pharmacist to review medicine to reduce side effects and interactions
  • check eyes once a year
  • drive during the day and in good weather
  • find safest route with well lit streets and left turn arrows
  • plan route before you drive
  • leave a large following distance between yourself and car in front of you
  • avoid distractions inside the car
  • consider alternatives to driving, i.e. public transit or riding with a friend


SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control

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