Senior Citizens on the Road: Tips for Safe Driving

senior citizen drivingIt’s a well-known fact that automobile accidents are one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Due to the prevalence of car travel, these road risks are unlikely to ever be eliminated completely. However, the country’s accident rate has been steadily decreasing according to a recent study conducted by AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Their report, Motor Vehicle Crashes, Injuries, and Deaths in Relation to Driver Age: United States, 1995-2010, published in November of 2012, outlines recent improvements in overall driver safety, but also dispels myths and stereotypes we may have about senior citizens terrorizing our roads. New statistics explain that “drivers ages 85 and older were involved in about the same number of crashes per mile driven as drivers ages 20-24.” These same test subjects aged 85 years and above were the group least likely to injure a pedestrian outside of a vehicle.

Does this mean we should not be concerned about our elderly loved ones’ driving abilities decreasing as they age? No! A senior citizen may drive every bit as well as a 22-year-old, but if he or she is involved in an accident, the likelihood of your loved one’s death may be up to 10 times greater than drivers within younger age groups.

Cars will always pose a serious danger to drivers, passengers and pedestrians. Only awareness and vigilance about safety issues will keep accident statistics at a continuing decline.

How Aging Can Affect Driving Ability

There is no question that a person’s body gradually breaks down as he or she grows older. Many of the health concerns that plague our elderly loved ones in their day-to-day lives may also affect their ability to drive safely. Some of the main concerns related to senior citizens behind the wheel are:

Poor eyesight and hearing – As your loved one’s senses become more impaired, he or she may lose awareness and be more likely to miss important driving cues, such as traffic signs and honking horns.

Declining motor skills and reflexes – As the body ages, muscles stiffen, joints ache, and a person’s range of comfortable motion decreases. This can make it harder for an elderly individual to react quickly in an emergency road situation.

Cognitive impairment and memory loss – Just like your senior loved one’s body has slowed down, his or her mind may also be slower to react. An aging brain can lose focus, making it more difficult for an elderly person to remember the steps and skills involved in safe driving.

Issues with medication – Prescription drug use can pose problems for drivers of all ages, but seniors are at an increased risk due to the many medications they are frequently taking. Not only can these medicines cause drowsiness or other dangerous side effects, but if your loved one has multiple prescriptions, the medications could potentially interact with each other poorly and cause additional problems that may affect driving ability.

Chronic illness or Medical emergencies – Many diseases or medical conditions that develop in old age can decrease your loved one’s ability to drive safely. He or she is also at higher risk of having a stroke, heart attack or seizure behind the wheel.

Evaluating Driving Skills

Evaluating Driving Skill for SeniorsAs your loved one ages, watch for hints that he or she may be having issues with operating a motor vehicle. The best way to do this, of course, is to ride along with a senior who is driving. Carefully observe your loved one’s behavior behind the wheel. Is she easily distracted? Are his reaction times slowing down?

Keep track of whether the car is straying off course, lane changes are performed correctly, traffic signs are noticed and observed, and all other driving skills are as precise and safe as they’ve always been. Lapses in focus and judgment happen to everyone from time to time, but is your senior loved one experiencing “close calls” with more frequency than you find comfortable?

Off the road, pay attention to little details such as new dents or scratches on your loved one’s vehicle and an increase in traffic citations. Is Grandma consistently arriving late to events and appointments? This could be a sign that her memory is waning and she is finding it difficult to remember the location of her destination.

The AAA website provides a wealth of information in a section designed for senior drivers. A brochure titled Drivers 65 Plus offers exercises to help your loved one self-rate his or her driving skills. The website also offers information about AAA’s interactive online driving evaluation and hiring an agent to perform a professional assessment of your loved one’s driving ability. In addition, seniors can play the Driver Seat Game on the Liberty Mutual Insurance website as a fun overview of how aging affects driving skills.

Keeping Your Loved One on the Road

You and your elderly loved one share the same goal of keeping him or her on the road for as long as possible. There are many ways that you can help the senior citizen in your life maintain independence behind the wheel by encouraging behaviors the will increase driver safety:

  • Exercise both the body and mind to promote mental and physical sharpness
  • Get regular health check-ups and treatments
  • Take medications as prescribed, and check out each drug at Roadwise RX
  • Eliminate unnecessary distractions while driving
  • Understand the changing controls of newer vehicles before operation on the road
  • Use assistive devices that will adapt a vehicle to compensate for physical disabilities
  • Keep your car in top condition to avoid maintenance-related accidents.

Senior driving refresher courses have proven a valuable resource to improve the skills of elderly students and keep them on the road. Check the AARP website’s “Getting Around” section for a driver safety course in your area.

A second option for seniors who have lost confidence on the road may be agreeing to limit their driving to a selection of familiar locations, not to drive at night or in poor weather conditions, driving only in low traffic areas, and/or staying off the freeway.

When It’s Time to Take Away the Keys

senior drivingA senior citizen’s ability to drive safely as he or she ages will vary considerably with each individual. There is no guarantee that you will need to approach your loved one with concerns about his driving skills, but if you do, you may find that he refuses to take your advice on retiring the family vehicle.

Aging can be scary, and it is understandable for an elderly person to be resistant to changes that make him feel weak and helpless. The best approach is to be sympathetic and understanding, rather than putting your loved one on the defensive with an aggressive “attack.” Some tips for discussing impaired driving ability with your loved one are:

  • Emphasize how valued the person is to friends and family, and how nobody wants her to get hurt or killed.
  • Don’t make sweeping generalizations - give specific examples of times when your loved one’s driving concerned you.
  • Bring a list of the many alternative forms of transportation that allow the senior to remain independent.
  • Point out the advantages of a car-free life, such as more exercise and less financial expense.
  • Don’t “gang up” on your loved one by staging a group intervention, but do be prepared to present the observations of others as a second opinion.
  • Be dedicated to spending more time with your loved one to ensure that he or she will stay active and involved in life.

The American Public Transportation Association and the Getting Around website are both good sources for information on public transportation options, paratransit services, Dial-a-Ride, and other mobility alternatives for elderly citizens. Your local senior center should also have information and will possibly even operate their own transportation services.

One way to facilitate your loved one’s smooth transition from driving to alternative transportation is to discuss the issue well in advance of the problem’s onset. Seniors may be more open to discussing the effects of aging on driving when they aren’t yet in danger of losing their car keys. It may be helpful to draw up a plan in writing that will address potential skill loss and offer tools to help your loved one adapt to the changes he or she faces in the future. AAA offers an example of a Driving Planning Agreement to use as a guideline.

If your loved one is adamant about continuing to drive, but you know for certain that he or she poses a serious danger on the road, you may need to take drastic action for the sake of everybody’s safety. Before you hide your elderly loved one’s car keys, steal her spark plugs, or put his Oldsmobile up for auction on eBay, check your state or city laws for legal options that may allow an unbiased authority – such as the DMV or your family physician – to be the “bad guy.”

Written by Senior Homes writer Mckenzie Fritch

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