Behind the Wheel: Aging drivers, safety, and when it’s time to take the keys

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Behind the Wheel: Aging drivers, safety, and when it’s time to take the keys

How old is too old to drive? It’s not necessarily an easy question to answer. Depending on physical health, skill, vision, and even location, elderly drivers can be capable of safely and predictably handling a vehicle well into their seventies and even eighties. And, as baby boomers age further into their golden years, an increasing percentage of drivers will find themselves in that bracket. In fact, the Federal Highway Commission’s 2016 data noted a record 41.7 million drivers over the age of 65. That’s nearly one in five of the licensed population, an increase of 15 million over 20 years ago. By 2020, drivers aged 75 and older numbered more than 17 million. And, by 2030, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that one out of every four drivers will be an older adult.

These numbers aren’t particularly surprising. As healthcare and a host of other factors improve, people are living longer, and few of those people want to give up the self-sufficiency of driving. But when does the need for safety, both of the driver and those with whom they share the road, outweigh the desire for independence? After all, males aged 85 and older have the highest crash rates, equal only to their 20 to 24-year-old counterparts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most aging drivers impose their own restrictions, avoiding driving situations – dark hours, bad weather, busy traffic – in which they don’t feel safe or capable. It also appears that the appropriate time to relinquish a license is more about the skills than the age. Some early warning signs that driving days might be limited include getting lost or disoriented; ignoring traffic signals or common safety precautions, like checking mirrors and blind spots; failing to adequately anticipate changes in traffic and conditions and react accordingly; and displaying generally poor judgment.

Physical limitations will be a determining factor, as well. Impairments to vision or cognition are critical to driver safety no matter the age. Regular vision checks, in particular, should be a part of every aging driver’s annual evaluation. Medications and certain conditions, like Parkinson’s disease or dementia, should also be cause for concern. Any condition that impacts sleep significantly; apnea, insomnia, pain, will also dramatically impair driving capability. In fact, studies have likened the impact of lack of sleep on driving to alcohol’s effects. According to the Sleep Foundation, after just 18 hours of being awake, reaction, coordination, and judgment are comparable to a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .05%; that increases to .08% – the legal limit in most states – after 20 hours and escalates to .1% after 24.

To determine if you or your aging family member need to consider an alternative transportation plan, you can take a self-assessment on any number of respected websites, schedule a professional assessment; and/or work with a driving rehabilitation specialist to evaluate weaknesses and improve skills. Until in-personal driver’s license renewal and vision requirements are federally mandated after a certain age, proactively evaluating your driving ability, or that of your loved one, is the best precaution against accidents and injury.

Finally, while it may be tempting to shelter your aging parent or friend from the truth, honest conversations and appropriate planning should happen well before an accident necessitates them. Sharing concerns and helping to develop a realistic mobility plan can do wonders to alleviate the sting of lost independence.


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