You Are At: AllSands Home > Hobbies > Elderly drivers: what are the dangers?
There was an award-winning movie some years back called Driving Miss Daisy. It was all about a proud, elderly lady who could no longer drive. After unsuccessful attempts at public transportation, her son hires a chauffeur to solve the problem. The arrangement forged an unlikely, yet touching friendship between the driver and his passenger. Such is life in the movies. However, for most seniors, hiring a personal chauffeur is not an option.

American society is undergoing a major demographic transformation, which is resulting in a larger proportion of older individuals in the population. Recent travel surveys, from the past fifteen years, show an increasing number of older people are currently licensed to drive. These drivers are behind the wheel more than their counterparts of fifteen years ago. Some believe this demographic change, called the "graying of America", coupled with the increasing mobility of the older population poses a serious highway safety issue. The major concerns are the identification of "high-risk" older drivers and the establishment of licensing guidelines.

However, legislative attempts to add to the testing requirements for older drivers have met with opposition from senior groups such as AARP. Additional driving tests for the elderly continues to be a highly controversial topic around the nation. Senior-advocacy groups have pushed state lawmakers to defeat age-based driving bills in both Florida and Texas.

Research has shown everyone ages differently and growing old does not necessarily mean a person becomes a safety hazard on the road. Much depends on the person's physical and mental health as the years pass. Studies have shown a direct link between the kinds of driving problems experienced by older motorists and the physical changes that can occur in all older persons.

According to AARP, about thirty percent of those over age 65 are hearing impaired. The ability to hear is more important to driving than most people realize. Hearing can warn a driver of danger signals like the sound of sirens, horns, or screeching tires. There are occasions when a driver can hear a car but can't see it because of a blind spot. Good hearing helps drivers to be sensitive to what is happening on the roadways around them.

The increasing prevalence of chronic diseases in the elderly may complicate driving. Arthritis or changes in posture may make it difficult for a senior to operate the vehicle properly. Reduced muscle strength or loss of coordination due to such conditions as Parkinson's disease can also limit driving ability.

Seniors often take several prescriptions at one time and side effects or drug interactions can effect driving. A class of medications commonly taken by the elderly to treat insomnia and anxiety may put them at greater risk for motor vehicle accidents, according to a Canadian study.

Based on the trial of nearly 225,000 drivers ages 67 to 84, researchers found those who took long-acting benzodiazepines were 45 percent more likely to have an injury-causing car accident within the first week of taking the medications, compared with elderly drivers not taking these drugs. Common long-acting agents include Valium and Tranxene. The importance of this problem is illustrated by the study finding that "on any given day, one of every five older drivers was taking a benzodiazepine, despite package warnings to avoid driving while on these medications." Because metabolism slows with age, the effects of these particular long-acting drugs are amplified among the elderly. Those involved in the trial say doctors who give their elderly patients benzodiazepines should issue strong warnings against driving, preferably in front of a family member.

A large number of older adults practice self-regulation when they think they shouldn't be driving anymore. This is shown by the fact that license renewals drop dramatically for people in their 80s. But the opposite can be true. Men in particular associate driving with "their manhood" and independence. Some men see losing their driver license like a death sentence. One 96-year old Detroit man proves this point. Members of his family repeatedly tried to persuade him to stop driving, because he kept crashing into a tree next to the driveway. So how did he respond? Rather than stop driving, he chopped down the tree.

It has been shown in a several studies that giving up driving is the third biggest trauma an older person can face. The first being the loss of a spouse and the second a change of residence. Many times, seniors see their car as the last connection to freedom and independence. It's no wonder adult children hesitate when it comes to discussing this issue. A straightforward plea to hand over the keys rarely works. It's better to have someone other than the adult child (a regular doctor is the best bet) to discuss the issue of driving. Older drivers are more likely to trust their doctors' judgments, and the doctors weild authority that the adult child can not.

In 1979, AARP began a driver improvement course, designed for motorists over age 50. Since then, over six million people have participated in 55 ALIVE. The inexpensive, eight-hour course is taught in two, four-hour sessions spanning two days. The program helps drivers refine existing skills and covers topics such as the effects of medications, how age changes reaction time, and defensive driving techniques. As a side benefit, graduates of this course may be eligible for a discount on their auto insurance.

Besides the usual alternate means of transportation such as city buses or taxis you might consider these options:

1. Contact your local Agency on Aging to find out about shared rides and other transit programs for seniors.

2. Many churches, synagogues, and senior centers offer free transportation. Call around.

3. More and more groceries and pharmacies are now delivering. Check out this option.

4. Consider asking a neighbor's teenage son or daughter to take you places for a small fee.