Plenty of seniors can drive well, but impairments that come with age have to be considered.
In Santa Monica, Calif., an 86-year-old man drove his car though a farmer’s market at high-speed, killing nine adults and a two-year-old. He thought he was pressing the brake rather than the accelerator.
This tragic example demonstrates the dangers some seniors pose when their cognitive and motor skills diminish, although many people 75 and older are safe and careful drivers.
Although they only account for about 9 percent of the population, senior drivers account for 14 percent of all traffic fatalities and 17 percent of all pedestrian fatalities, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
The rate of deaths involving drivers 75 to 84 is about three per million miles driven – about the same as teen drivers, according to a report by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Once they pass age 85, vehicular fatality rates jump to nearly four times that of teens.
“In my opinion, gramps may be slow and drive me nuts by cruising at 40 mph on the interstate, but he sure as heck is safer than most of us,” writes Gayatri Devi, MD. “The first fender bender, more than the age of the driver, may be the best indicator of the need for further evaluation of driving.”
The rate of crashes among adults 65 and over has decreased in recent years. This drop is due to a number of reasons, including better older adult health, safer cars, and safer roads.
“In addition, older drivers’ ability to ‘police’ themselves – like not driving at night – and stricter state laws for renewal of driver’s licenses may help,” according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).
Older adult drivers also are less likely to drink and drive than other drivers. Only 7 percent of older drivers involved in fatal crashes had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 grams per deciliter or higher, compared to 24 percent of drivers ages of 21 and 64, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Yet, it’s common for people to have declines in visual, thinking, or physical abilities as they get older, according to the NIH. This makes it more likely that older drivers will have more trouble than younger ones in certain situations, including making left turns, changing lanes, and navigating through intersections. As a result, many states have special requirements for seniors to renew their driver’s license.
Common mistakes of older drivers include failing to yield the right of way, failing to stay in their lane, misjudging the time or distance needed to turn in front of traffic, failing to stop completely at a stop sign, and speeding or driving too slowly.
Medical issues to consider include whether a senior has had their hearing and vision checked recently, had a physical exam in the past year to test reflexes, and have made sure they don’t have illness that would impact their driving.
Medications that might make them drowsy or confused during driving are also an important consideration. If a senior has trouble climbing a flight of stairs or walking more than one block, they might have an impairment that could affect their driving as well. Falling once or more during the past year also is a reflection of reduced motor skills. Sometimes a doctor tells a senior they should simply stop driving.
The CDC suggests several measures to maintain the safety of senior drivers, including exercising regularly to increase strength and flexibility, driving during daylight and good weather, finding the safest route with well-lit streets, using intersections with left turn arrows, and easy parking.
The CDC also suggests planning your route before you drive, leaving a large following distance behind the car in front of you, and avoiding distractions in your car (such as listening to a loud radio, talking on your cell phone, texting, and eating).
You should also consider potential alternatives to driving, such as riding with a friend or using public transit, so you can still get around, the CDC says.
According to AARP, you should stop driving if you:
- Find yourself almost crashing, with frequent close calls
- Discover dents and scrapes on your car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, and curbs
- Are getting lost, especially in familiar locations
- Have trouble seeing or following traffic signals, road signs, and pavement markings
Other warning signs include your responding more slowly to unexpected situations, or having trouble moving your foot from the gas to the brake pedal, misjudging gaps in traffic at intersections and on highway entrance and exit ramps, having road rage or causing other drivers to honk or complain, becoming easily distracted, having a hard time backing up or changing lanes, or receiving multiple traffic or warning citations from the police.
December 20, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN