Friday, October 26, 2007

Should Dad Still Drive?

For many, asking this question is equivalent to opening Pandora's box. It is an issue of independence. While everyone ages differently, many people are able to continue to drive into their seventies, eighties, and even nineties. Some seniors are at higher risk for road accidents. The elderly are more likely to receive traffic citations for failing to yield, turning improperly, and running red lights and stop signs - an indication of decreased driving ability. A person 65 or older who is involved in a car accident is more likely to be seriously hurt, more likely to require hospitalization, and more likely to die than younger people involved in the same crash. In particular, fatal crash rates rise sharply after a driver has reached the age of 70.

If you know an older driver who is experiencing trouble on the road, it is important to carefully monitor the situation. There are physical changes in aging that may affect road safety:

Visual decline
Vision declines with age, which means depth perception and judging the speed of oncoming traffic become more difficult. The eyes also lose the ability to process light, which makes night vision worse and causes more sensitivity to bright sunlight and glare. By age 60, you need three times the amount of light that you did at age 20 in order to drive safely after nightfall.

Hearing loss
Approximately one-third of adults over age 65 are hearing-impaired. Because hearing loss happens gradually, a senior may not realize they are missing important cues when driving, such as honking, emergency sirens, or a child's bicycle bell.

Limited mobility and increased reaction time
With age, flexibility may decrease as response time increases. A full range of motion is crucial on the road. In addition, chronic conditions can limit mobility (rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease, sleep apnea, heart disease, or diabetes).

People often take more medications as they age. Certain medications, as well as a combination of medications and alcohol, can increase driving risk. Be particularly careful about medication side-effects and interactions between medications.

Aging can make sleeping more difficult, resulting in daytime tiredness and an increased tendency to doze off during the day (or while driving). In addition, certain prescription drugs cause drowsiness.

Dementia or brain impairment
Mental impairment or dementia makes driving more dangerous and more frustrating. Brain impairment may cause delayed reactions to sudden or confusing situations on the road.

There are also problems in the driving environment that can affect drivers of any age. If an older adult is experiencing other problems, these challenges can make it even more difficult to drive safely: signs and road markings that are difficult to see or to read, complex and confusing intersections, older vehicles that lack automatic safety features, newer dashboard instrument panels with multiple displays all affect driver safety.

Warning signs of unsafe driving ability:

Abrupt lane changes, braking, or acceleration

More frequent "close calls", or dents and scrapes on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, curbs, etc.

Failing to use the turn signal, or keeping the signal on without changing lanes.

Drifting into other lanes.

Driving on the wrong side of the road or in the shoulder.

Trouble reading signs or navigating directions to get somewhere.

Missing highway exits or backing up after missing an exit.

Difficulty with Range-of-motion of the neck, affecting the ability to look over the shoulder, turn head, or move hands or feet.

Trouble moving the foot from the gas to the brake pedal, or confusing the two pedals.

Feeling more nervous or fearful while driving or feeling exhausted after driving.

More conflict on the road: other drivers honking; frustration or anger at other drivers.

Oblivious to the frustration of other drivers, not understanding why they are honking.

Reluctance from friends or relatives to be in the car with the senior driving.

Getting lost more often.

Trouble paying attention to signals, road signs, pavement markings, or pedestrians.

Slow reaction to changes in the driving environment.

Increased traffic tickets or "warnings" by traffic or law enforcement officers.

If you would like a free copy of the Driver Safety Rating Form, e-mail Health Calls at: