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Aging Drivers: Growing old doesn't mean surrendering the keys

A group of Minnesota drivers take part in a refresher driving course. Such classes help older drivers to become more aware of changing factors that influence their driving, from their own skills to highway and vehicle technology. - Scott Wente Photo

The significance of a driver's license never truly dissipates, which makes it difficult for aging men and women to address their abilities as a driver and whether they can still safely share the road with other motorists.

Traffic statistics show there are reasons to be increasingly cognizant of a driver's ability as he or she ages.

Drivers over 65 have as high a crash rate as teenage drivers, said Larry Nadeau, director of outreach with the Minnesota Highway Safety and Research Center. That includes minor incidents as well as serious accidents.

"What we see is our crash rates or crash experience rates go up," Nadeau said of older drivers.

Though many drivers can safely stay behind the wheel well into their golden years, others begin to recognize their skills are starting to diminish as they approach senior citizen status. For those who want help gauging their abilities as a driver, some self-examination can help.

Assess eyesight

Healthy eyes are essential to being a safe driver, and drivers can assess their eyesight in a number of ways. In addition to visiting an eye doctor for an eye examination, drivers should look for signs that they're having difficulty with driving.

If signs and street markings aren't so easy to read anymore, you might need a new prescription for eyeglasses. When the glare of headlights at night makes it difficult to see, your driver's seat might need to be adjusted or you might want to consider antiglare eyeglasses that make it easier to see at night.

Assess comfort level

Safe drivers are also comfortable drivers. To assess your comfort level as a driver, ask yourself the following questions before getting back behind the wheel.

  • Is it troublesome to look over your shoulder and change lanes?
  • Has steering become difficult?
  • Has your reaction time when switching from the gas pedal to the brake pedal decreased?

If you can answer "yes" to any of the questions above, then it could be that you're beginning to lose strength, coordination and/or flexibility, which can make it more difficult to operate a motor vehicle.

Answering "yes" doesn't mean you have to give up your driver's license. In fact, your doctor might be able to prescribe therapies or medicines or suggest a fitness regimen that can make it easier for you to comfortably drive a car. In addition, if you're having trouble steering or operating a motor vehicle in any way, you might just want to find a vehicle that's easier to drive, such as one with an automatic transmission that has power steering and brakes.

When assessing your comfort level, also examine your mental state while driving. If other drivers make you uncomfortable or traffic signs are confusing, this can make it difficult to safely operate an automobile. Such feelings when driving could also be a side effect of a particular medication, so discuss the issue with your doctor to see if that's the case and if there are any alternatives.

Other steps

There are other steps drivers can take to ensure they still have the skills to drive safely. Community organizations and driver training organizations sponsor refresher driving courses. Nadeau's office, which is based at St. Cloud State University, organizes "Over 55" driving classes at 300 sites around Minnesota, including in Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Hastings and Red Wing.

Those courses - which are open to drivers of any age but generally are used by drivers over 55 - cover a variety of driving-related factors that change as people age. Those include hearing, eyesight and depth perception. Instructors also discuss new technology - both in roadway engineering and high-tech features offered in new vehicles.

Many people take driver refresher courses in order to obtain a discount on auto insurance, Nadeau said, but the topics covered are important. People should not feel embarrassed if they feel they need to enroll.

"It's a non-threatening environment," he said. "They have some fun; we engage the people. There's nothing that people need to be apprehensive about."

Address concerns

Aging drivers are often the last to notice if their abilities behind the wheel are starting to diminish. Loved ones are often put in the position of talking to aging drivers about their abilities, and this can cause friction.

If loved ones have expressed concern about your abilities as a driver, honestly address these concerns, even if it's initially hurtful or embarrassing to do so. Your loved ones are sharing their feelings out of genuine concern for your well-being, so don't look at it as an assault on your self-sufficiency.

Aging drivers face obstacles they may or may not be prepared for. When such challenges arise, that doesn't necessarily mean it's time to stop driving entirely. Instead, honestly weigh a host of factors before deciding if it's still safe for you to be behind the wheel.

If you are concerned about a loved one's ability to drive safely, it's important to discuss those concerns and talk about options, Nadeau said. That could include driver refresher courses or, if the skills have diminished to the point that it is not safe to drive, exploring public transportation alternatives.

"Those discussions need to be had earlier on," he said. "It is about creating an awareness of those methods of (public) transportation and then letting that person have some dignity and some responsibility with making those decisions."