Driving Safely As We Age

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“I only make right turns,” said my 89-year-old friend when asked to what he credits his accident-free driving record of the last decade. Like most seniors, Samhas modified his driving habits as he’s aged to accommodate his changing physical abilities.

The ability to get around is a top priority for people as they age, second only to financial security and health-care costs, according to a study by AAA. Without ways to get around, numerous studies show, seniors’ health and well-being can decline dramatically if they become isolated from friends, family, cultural events and medical care.

It’s no wonder some seniors drive longer than they should, putting themselves and others at risk.

A growing issue

People over the ageof 65 are the fastest growing population group in the United States. By the year 2020, it is estimated that one in every five drivers will be over the age of 65.

According to AAA, senior drivers are at a higher risk of having a serious collision per mile driven than any other age group, except for those under age 25. Drivers in their late 70s have about the same number of injury-related crashes per mile driven as drivers in their early 20s. And drivers age 85 and older are injured or killed in crashes at a higher rate than any other age group, due to the increased fragility that comes with age.

Attention to the issue of older drivers varies greatly from state to state. Some states have special vision and on-road driving tests for elderly drivers, but automatic renewals are the norm in half the country. While many states have policies limiting driving privileges based on medical conditions, few states require doctors to notify the DMV about patients with medical conditions that may impair their driving ability.

Thus, it often falls on adult children, relatives, caregivers and seniors themselves to decide when it’s time to re-assess their driving skills.

The warning signs

How do you know if an older driver is still fit to drive? According to AAA, some of the signs that an older driver needs assistance are that he or she:

• Neglects to buckle up
• Has difficulty working the pedals
• Has trouble merging onto freeways and navigating intersections
• Has trouble seeing other vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, especially at night
• “Overlooks” or ignores stops signs and traffic signals
• Weaves, straddles lanes or drifts into other lanes without signaling
• Reacts slowly to the sirens and flashing lights of emergency vehicles
• Gets lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places
• Has received two or more tickets or warnings, collisions or “near misses” in the past two years

If you are an older driver, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests asking yourself the following questions to determine if your driving habits need to be changed:

• Do cars seem to stop suddenly in front of you?
• Do cars seem to suddenly come out of nowhere?
• Are other drivers in too big a rush?
• Do other drivers frequently honk or pass you, even when traffic is moving slowly?
• Do you sometimes fail to notice a traffic sign?
• Are roads getting too confusing?
• Is night driving getting more difficult?

Answering yes to a few of these is a wake-up call that you need to take some special precautions. Limit your night and rush hour driving, leave extra space between your car and cars ahead, and seriously consider signing up for a driving skills assessment and/or refresher course.

Some insurance companies offer reduced premiums to seniors who complete safe driving courses. Check with your insurance provider for details. Reputable organizations offer senior driving skills assessments, educational programs and interactive exercises that can help seniors hone their driving skills and activate their brains, keeping them safer and on the roads longer. While many state agencies, universities and private companies offer courses, it is worth noting that AAA and AARP offer outstanding programs.

Driver safety resources for seniors

In 2014, AARP debuted its “Smart Driver Course”(available online and in classroom settings), a new and improved driver safety programthat teaches the rules of the road, defensive driving techniques, and gives special focus to areas where studies have shown older drivers could benefit from additional training, including:

• Roundabouts
• Pavement markings
• Stop-sign compliance
• Red-light running
• Safety issues such as speeding, and seatbelt and turn-signal use

The course is offered for $17.95 for AARP members and $21.95 for non-members. AARP also offers informative articles and tools such as a driving simulator on its website. For more information, visit www.aarpdriversafety.org or call 800-350-7072.

AAA has devoted an entire website to senior driving (www.seniordriving.aaa.com). The site offers screening programs to test driving skills, training programs to help seniors improve skills, and information about alternative transportation options. These include:

RoadWise Driver – This course -- offered online or in a classroom setting –offers the most up-to-date driving techniques and information on the latest vehicle technologies to help seniors maintain their independence and quality of life. .
Roadwise Review Online–A free screening tool designed to help seniors measure certain mental and physical abilities important to driving. It identifies and provides early warning about declines in critical safe driving abilities.
Roadwise Rx – A free online tool that provides users with instant, personalized, confidential information about drug interactions and medication side effects, and any possible effects they may have on one’s ability to safely drive a car.
DriveSharp– An online brain fitness program with interactive exercises that clinically proven to help users see more, react more quickly to things, improve short-term memory and cut their risk of a car crash by up to 50 percent. The course is available to AAA members for $49. (www.DriveSharpNow.com)
CarFit– A community based activity designed to improve the “fit” between mature drivers and their vehicles, and provide ways to enhance comfort and safety behind the wheel. A collaborative effort of AAA, AARP, and the American Occupational Therapy Association. (www.Car-Fit.org)
Smart Features for Mature Drivers – A guide that identifies vehicle features that can assist drivers with visual, physical and mental changes that are frequently encountered as they age.

If driving is no longer an option, visit www.eldercare.gov for information on local transportation alternatives and assistance...