Aging and Driving
by John Swartzberg, M.D. October 01, 2012
Getting a driver’s license is a milestone in many people’s lives. Another milestone that many older people may have to face, far more reluctantly, is hanging up their car keys.
The risk of fatal accidents increases with age, due to various physical and mental factors. No matter how healthy you are, you can develop subtle deficits that impair your driving. Though there’s no age at which anyone should automatically stop driving, I think it’s critical for older people—myself included—to periodically re-evaluate their driving skills, not only for their own safety, but also for the safety of others. It’s also essential to check in on aging parents, spouses or other loved ones whose driving abilities may be on the decline.
You may also want to talk to your doctor, who can help assess the situation. Perhaps an undiagnosed medical condition is interfering with driving and can be remedied, or some medication is at fault and can be changed. Physical therapy may help increase flexibility, and brain games may help you think and react faster. Some simple car adjustments—such as installing wider side mirrors or pedal extenders—can also increase safety.
It’s not inevitable that you (or a loved one) will have to stop driving. That’s good news, considering the consequences this can have— loss of freedom and independence and increased social isolation, which can lead to depression and affect your health in other ways, too (if, for example, it prevents you from getting to doctors’ appointments). In fact, many older people are safer drivers than younger people. They are less likely to speed or drive while intoxicated, and more likely to wear seat belts. They’re also more likely to avoid driving at night, in bad weather and on high-speed roads. And contrary to expectations, crash rates in older drivers actually declined between 1997 and 2008 (more so than in younger people), especially in those 70 and older, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Still, it’s a good idea to plan ahead in case you do have to stop driving eventually by checking out alternative transportation options. Will a friend or family member be able to help out? Does your community offer van or taxi services? What public transportation is available?
Already there are some 33 million drivers in the U.S. who are at least 65 years old. With aging baby boomers, that number is rising fast. It’s estimated that by 2030, one in five drivers will be over 65. Let’s all make sure we keep it safe.