Age can affect safe driving skills

Impact of aging on safe driving skills:

• Vision, memory, strength, flexibility and reaction time decrease.

• Medications and health conditions may affect driving.

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Proactive steps to take:

• Take a certified driver-safety course.

• Attend a CarFit safety event.

• Take driving skills self-assessment, or be evaluated by a certified driver-rehabilitation specialist.

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Source: Older Drivers Safety Program, Georgia Department of Public Health

Older adults are more likely to die in a car crash than any other age group, despite being among the nation’s safest drivers.

Drivers 65 and older wear their seat belts more than any other age group, and they don’t drink or text while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

It’s not that seniors crash more often, but they’re less likely to survive a crash because of their age, says Elizabeth N. Head, coordinator of the older driver part of the Injury Prevention Program of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Aging can bring declines in vision, memory, strength, flexibility and reaction time, all of which can contribute to unsafe driving. The effects of medications and declining health or physical frailty can also bring about a greater risk of death in a crash.

In 2008, 69 percent of Georgia drivers 65 and older who were involved in a vehicle crash died. State aging experts predict that by 2025 motor vehicle crashes will be the second leading cause of unintentional-injury deaths among this age group.

However, these grim statistics shouldn’t be reason enough to ask grandpa to hand in his keys.

Seniors can maintain their driving safety by being proactive, says Head. Taking driving and physical assessments, self-regulating their driving habits and planning ahead for transportation options are all good early steps, she said.

“Driving is about ability, it’s not about age,” Head said.

She said many seniors, particularly females, give up driving too early because they become fearful or it becomes more difficult to turn on the ignition or buckle the seat belt.

CarFit, a free, national program by AAA, helps seniors fit in their car better by adjusting their mirrors and seats so they can drive more safely. There are devices to make driving easier for adults achy with arthritis or those having trouble seeing over the steering wheel.

AARP offers a Smart Driver Course that focuses on topics like sharing the road, stopping distances, merging, rules for roundabouts and stop signs and adjusting mirrors to reduce blind spots. The low-cost course ($19.95 AARP members/$24.95 non-members) can be taken online.

For more extensive driving help, Head recommends the services of a driver-rehabilitation specialist who can conduct a thorough on- and off-the-road assessment.

Seniors should know what transportation options are available long before they give up or curtail their driving. It’s important for them to stay mobile and not become isolated just because driving is no longer an option, Head said.

“The main thing to remember is that stopping driving should never mean you lose your independence,” Head said.

Senior drivers do tend to self-restrict. Many won’t drive at night, and others limit themselves to travel certain times of the day or keep to familiar routes close to home.

Signs that seniors should curtail their driving could include: having trouble navigating turns, especially left turns; having unexplained dents in the vehicle; not remembering how you got from one place to another, and not knowing how to get back.

For seniors who are reluctant to give up their keys — but should — aging experts urge family members to intervene.

It begins with having a conversation and listening for any clues about driving troubles. And if you’re together during the holidays, it’s just as good a time as any.

“Anytime you see your parents is a good time to talk about it,” Head says. But, as with all other conversations about aging, it should be done with respect. They are, after all, still the parents.