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How Elderly drivers are at risk on the road

By Neil Bartlett

Jake Nelson, AAAMany people may think that the older a driver is, the more of a risk he or she is on the road. However, according to a Feb. 2014 report from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), older drivers are less likely to get into car crashes than they were in previous generations — and they’re less likely to be killed or seriously injured.

We spoke to Jake Nelson, traffic safety advocacy and research director for AAA to find out what he thinks this report means for older drivers and whether the report’s results were surprising to him.

Did the results of the IIHS report surprise you?

No. It tracks with my observations. The take-home message of the IIHS report is what we’ve been communicating for the last 10 years to our members and policymakers. The research shows drivers who are older are among the safest on the road. In fact, those 65 and older are the safest cohort of drivers on the road today. They have crash rates half those of teenagers. And they have crash rates lower than those associated with drivers 35 to 55.

The problem is that you’ll hear media reports about crashes involving older drivers — someone 65 and older crashes into a dry cleaner or grocery store. Suddenly all senior drivers are a menace to society, and policymakers are trying to figure out how to get older drivers off the road.

Senior Americans drive fewer miles, they regulate their behavior by avoiding high-risk driving environments, they don’t drive after drinking, and they’re the most likely to buckle their seat belts.

But there’s a challenge with older drivers with cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimer’s disease and various types of dementia. Then their judgment and ability to drive safely is compromised.

What are current dangers on the road for older drivers?

A major challenge is intersection crashes, and especially where the driver is making a left turn. It has to do with their ability to judge the speed of oncoming cars and the distance between them and the vehicle headed their way.

Driving at night is a challenge for many older drivers because of vision and nighttime glare from oncoming headlights.

A third challenge is that many senior drivers use medications that affect their driving. A study of these drivers from 2009 showed that while over three-quarters reported using one or more medications, less than 3 in 10 acknowledged some awareness of the potential impact of these medications on their driving.

AAA has a tool that’s available to all: You can enter your prescriptions and
over-the-counter medications and find out what effect they might have on your driving ability.

There’s a tremendous opportunity for the driver-safety communities and health care communities to work in tandem to help older drivers understand and know how the medications they’re taking affect their driving.

How can senior drivers stay safe on the road?

If there’s a concern whether the individual should still be driving, AAA has a 15-point self-evaluation tool available to anyone. Based on your answers, it will tell you how many unsafe driving practices you’re engaged in, along with suggestions for improvement.

Most of us plan our retirement from work. Older drivers need to plan to consider that they may need to also retire from driving. Research shows that in the United States, most people outlive their ability to drive by seven to 10 years. Thirty years ago, this wasn’t true. But today, older Americans are living longer and healthier.

If an older driver can look ahead and factor retiring from driving into future plans, they can avoid situations where they can’t get to church, the grocery store and health care appointments because of lack of transportation. It’s not fun to be trapped in your home with no way to get around. This way, you can plan to live, for example, in a community near your kids or somewhere with good public transportation.

If a family member is concerned about whether their aging relative should still be driving, what can they do?

Sometimes our opinion of whether Mom or Dad should be driving isn’t always right. It can cut both ways — you think they’re perfectly safe to drive when they’re not, or you think they’re not OK to drive and they really are.

The best thing you can do is have them talk to their doctor and see if they can be evaluated by an occupational therapist who’s also a certified driver rehabilitation specialist. These individuals have advanced knowledge and expertise about medical conditions and about driver safety.

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