May 23, 2011
Driving is one of the most sensitive of senior issues. But there's good news and support for older adults who want to extend their days behind the wheel.
Q. My widowed 81-year-old father is still in relatively good health and driving. But I'm becoming concerned about his safety. I want him to be able to drive as long as possible. How can I tell if he's still a safe driver? And, are there ways to help improve his driving skills? What's more, he wants to buy a new car. Is that a good idea?
A report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety may help your peace of mind. Auto crash deaths among drivers 70 and older fell 21 percent during the period 1997-2006, reversing an upward trend, even as the population of people 70 and older rose 10 percent, according to the study (PDF) by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Despite growing numbers on the road, fewer older drivers died in crashes and fewer were involved in fatal collisions during the period than in years past, according to the study.
Driving is a privilege that shouldn't be taken for granted at any age. Older adults can be just as safe on the roadways as when they were younger, but adjustments are sometimes needed to account for age-related physical and cognitive changes. Loss of hearing and visual acuity, chronic diseases and medications can all impact their ability to drive safely. Good driving is more about skill than it is about age.
The AARP offers advice to help you determine if your dad should give up or limit his driving. Here are a few considerations from AARP for you and your dad:
- Does your father feel less comfortable and more nervous or fearful while driving?
- Does he have difficulty staying in the lane of travel?
- Are there more frequent "close calls" or near crashes?
- Are there more dents and scrapes on his vehicle, and on fences, mailboxes, garage doors and curbs along his route?
- Does he have trouble judging gaps in traffic at intersections and on highway entrance or exit ramps?
- Does he have difficulty turning his head to check over his shoulder while backing up or changing lanes?
- Is he easily distracted or does he have trouble concentrating while driving?
- Is he getting lost more often?
These are some of the issues you should try to observe with your father or ask him about. If you and your dad determine he's still safe on the highway, you might want to learn more about the AARP Driver Safety Program (seniordriving.aaa.com).
This program offers a classroom course designed to help older drivers hone their skills and avoid traffic accidents and violations. Their website features information on classes and where they are located, facts on senior driving in general, a driving IQ test, and a close-call test.
Before your dad buys a new car, encourage him to check out AAA's "Smart Features for Mature Drivers"– a program that has resulted from a partnership with the University of Florida's National Older Driver Research and Training Center (NODRTC). This program can serve as a guide in selecting your dad's next vehicle.
Because everyone ages differently, AAA recommends mature drivers look for vehicles with features that address their specific needs and health issues. Some of the recommendations included in the Smart Features for Mature Drivers plan include:
- Drivers suffering from hip or leg pain, decreased leg strength or limited knee range of motion should look for vehicles with six-way adjustable power seats and seat heights that come between the driver's mid-thigh and lower buttocks. Both of these features can make it easier for drivers to enter and exit a vehicle.
- Drivers with arthritic hands, painful or stiff fingers or diminished fine motor skills would benefit from four-door models, thick steering wheels, keyless entry and ignition, power mirrors and seats, and larger dashboard controls with buttons.
- Drivers with diminished vision or problems with low contrast sensitivity will find helpful vehicles with extendable sun visors, large audio and climate controls and displays with contrasting text.
In addition, AAA has launched a senior safety and mobility Website, www.AAASeniors.com. It includes content and resources based on extensive research, provides families of older drivers with valuable information related to senior mobility challenges and tools to help extend safe driving.
The Website provides information for senior drivers and those who care about them in three areas:
Sensing – One of the most noticeable effects of aging is diminishing eyesight. From 85 to 90 percent of the information necessary to drive is through our eyes, so good vision is essential for safe driving. In addition to deteriorating eyesight, mature drivers must also cope with decreased hearing ability. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. Roughly one-third of Americans 65 to 74 years of age and 47 percent of those 75 and older have hearing loss.
Deciding – Once your eyes and ears take in information, it's up to the mind to process it and decide on the best course of action. Age lengthens the time it takes the brain to process information and also makes it harder to ignore distractions. The good news is that experience, mature judgment and good driving habits can many times compensate for those diminished skills.
Acting – Finally, once a senior driver has decided on the best response to the situation, it's time to act. Older drivers can reduce their speed, maintain an escape path and cover the brake (lift the right foot from the accelerator and position it above the brake if a risky situation is imminent.)
Visit the AAA site for more important tips. Also, Home Instead Senior Care® has a program called the 40-70 Rule® that can help you begin conversations with seniors about sensitive subjects such as driving. Visit www.4070talk.com. If your father decides he should no longer drive, consider another option such as Home Instead Senior Care. The company's CAREGiversSM serve as companions to seniors, assisting them with shopping and errands as well as transportation. CAREGivers are screened, trained, bonded and insured.
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