Living Longer, Driving Longer

aging driversBy Debbie Hersman

Here’s something to think about as you draw up your list of New Year’s resolutions: driving and mobility planning.

Just as we plan ahead for financial stability in retirement, it’s important to plan for mobility as we age. Mobility is so important for independence, social connectedness and quality of life, but it’s often overlooked when planning for the golden years.

When I visit my mother she hands me her car keys. I give them right back. She needs to keep her skills up. Research shows that it’s low-mileage drivers — under about 3,000 miles a year — who are more at risk for accidents.

There’s a lot more we know about aging and driving than when my mother worried about her mother’s driving a generation ago. For one, there are more Americans over age 65 than at any other time in U.S. history and they are keeping their driver’s licenses longer. We also know from accident data that older Americans are driving more safely. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the rate of fatal crashes per licensed driver age 70 and older dropped about 37 percent from 1997 to 2008.

It is still the young novice drivers who are the greatest risk on our roadways.

Older drivers are better at self -regulating and tend to be more safety conscious. They wear seat belts and drive less frequently at night or in bad weather. They’ll avoid rush-hour traffic and stick to routes and roads that they know. And, they are less likely to drink and drive.

Yet, as we age we can lose the abilities that help us be good drivers. The decline in vision, both in sharpness and in the ability to see contrast, is just one functional loss. There’s also a falloff in the speed in which we perceive and process information, as well as degradation in memory and cognition. These performance limitations are associated with medical impairments – impairments more likely as we grow older.

With impairments come treatments, including medication, a huge issue for safe driving. If the medication is labeled “do not operate heavy machinery while using this medication,” be assured that your two-ton personal vehicle is heavy machinery. We’ve seen the deadly effects of medication-impaired driving in too many accident investigations.

Of particular concern for driving safely is dementia. Those are the drivers whose accidents make dramatic headlines, like the 100-year-old driver who backed into a group of people last summer in Los Angeles. Advanced age can make a big difference, as we saw in our recent special investigation of wrong-way driving accidents on limited-access highways. Our research showed that drivers over age 80 were dramatically overrepresented in wrong-way driving crashes with almost 30 times more wrong-way drivers.

But, there’s good news for my mother and her cohort. In December, during the American Occupational Therapy Association’s (AOTA) Older Driver Awareness Week, I checked in with Elin Schold Davis, who coordinates the association’s older driver initiatives. Schold Davis said the first sign of a problem in driving doesn’t mean the older driver has to give up the car keys.

It’s like any other health condition. A warning sign should prompt the driver, as well as concerned family members, to figure out what is causing the problem so it can be addressed. It may not require a choice between driving and not driving. It could mean a vision check and stronger eyeglasses or cataract surgery, more self-regulation or getting a driving fitness evaluation, which is offered by many occupational therapists.

There are a host of resources, from AAA, AARP, AOTA, among others, that can help older drivers plan for mobility in order to safely retain their independence and quality of life. The younger generation can help older family members in this planning. That’s why “Talk with Mom about mobility planning” is on my list of 2013 New Year’s resolutions. Then, I’ll hand her the keys.

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