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As baby boomers age, driving becomes a concern

Thursday - 12/5/2013, 10:57am  ET

WASHINGTON -- Every day, more than 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 and join the ever-expanding ranks of senior drivers in the United States.

By and large, older drivers have a pretty good safety record. But there comes a time when every senior citizen needs to adapt his or her driving style and start preparing to leave the driving to someone else.

Elin Schold Davis, coordinator of the Older Driver Initiative at the American Occupational Therapy Association, says it's crucial to have a talk with an aging parent or grandparent before there is a problem.

"We talk about finances, we talk about housing, we have to talk about transportation," Schold Davis says.

For a lot of seniors, driving is crucial to maintaining their independence, and giving it up can be very emotional, according to Schold Davis. By intervening early, the older driver can transition by keeping the car, but using it less.

Lon Anderson with AAA Mid-Atlantic says the organization has found over the years that most seniors who stop driving were "self-policed." He says, for the most part, "seniors know when they are safe and when they are not, when they are comfortable and when they are not."

He says many older drivers already take steps to compensate for slower reflexes and stiffer muscles. For example, some seniors have trouble making a left turn when there is no traffic light with a green arrow. Anderson says senior drivers can adapt by making a series of easier right turns.

But not every senior driver is able to stay safe behind the wheel. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5,560 people over the age of 65 died, and 214,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2012.

There figures represent a 3 percent increase in the number of fatalities and a 16 percent increase in the number of injuries from the previous year.

Both Anderson and Schold Davis say there are a lot of resources out there for older drivers who want to polish their skills and stay behind the wheel as long as it is safe to do so.

The American Occupational Therapy Association -- which has declared the week of Dec. 2 to be Older Driver Safety Awareness Week -- has many resources on its website. Also, the American Automobile Association offers a list of online tips for families of senior drivers.

The growing number of seniors behind the wheel is a concern for the folks who hand out driver's licenses, as well. Schold Davis says many issuers are looking at new screening tools, including medical review boards, that can step in to handle cases where police, doctors or even neighbors have raised concerns about a driver.

"It is not ageism. It is looking at who demonstrates functional impairment when they come in for their license renewal," Schold Davis says.

She makes it clear it's a work-in-progress for many licensing agencies, whose policies are likely to evolve over time. Each of the major DMVs in the D.C. area, for example, has developed a slightly different approach.

In D.C., drivers older than 70 must renew their licenses in person, take a vision test and get a medical fitness certification from a doctor.

Maryland permits renewals by mail for most seniors older than 70, but drivers must submit a vision certification form with their application. Those who renew in person get an eye test on site. A medical report may also be requested based on the applicant's physical condition and driving record.

In Virginia, only drivers older than 80 need to renew in person. Also, they must pass a vision test. And while there is no medical certification process like the one in D.C., older drivers may be asked to undergo further evaluation by a driver rehabilitation specialist or medical review board.

Schold Davis says while there are ways to compensate for many physical problems that face an older driver, no one should have a license once diagnosed with even moderate dementia. And most jurisdictions require at least 20/40 vision in one or both eyes.

Many seniors who give up driving say they do so to protect others. But the bottom line is: The person most likely to be injured when an elderly person is behind the wheel is the driver.

Even a moderate fender-bender can do incredible damage to a body that is growing more frail and more fragile by the year.

"That senior is much more vulnerable to have fractured ribs, fractured bones and to have their health status markedly diminished following that low-speed crash," Schold Davis says.

She says any elderly person whose ultimate goal is to live independently may want to keep that fact front-and-center when he or she considers getting behind the wheel. If he or she is incapacitated by a minor crash, his or her quality of life could decline and he or she could become more dependent on others.


Leslie Spacek, Capital News Service

BALTIMORE - For Older Driver Awareness Week the Mid-Atlantic Automobile Club is promoting safe driving for senior citizens through defensive training courses, smart feature vehicles and vehicle safety products designed to make drivers more comfortable.

(Copyright 2013 by Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.)

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