Senior Drivers in Transition

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as NMA Weekly E-Newsletter #474 in February 2018. If you would like to receive the weekly E-Newsletter, sign up today!

Driving is not just about mobility—fundamentally it is about independence. None of us want to lose that freedom. Age is not the only factor in the decision to drive or not to drive anymore. Studies show that giving up this lifeline increases with age a person’s likelihood of suffering from depression and eventually ending up in a dependent care facility.

As people grow older, driving can sometimes become more difficult due to the body’s response to aging. Changes in vision, reflexes and physical fitness may cause safety concerns. Driving is a complex task that requires healthy cognition, appropriate responsiveness and good physical flexibility.

Making the decision to no longer drive has to be one of the toughest to make especially since three-quarters of all seniors live in areas with few or no transportation alternatives. Children discussing this issue with their parents cannot be easy for either party, especially if the adult child lives far away and cannot help out with driving chores. After a certain age, older drivers also have additional obstacles placed on them by states in order to renew a driver’s license.

Despite all this hand wringing, there are more older drivers now on the road than ever before, an artifact of the baby boomer generation. Did you know that over one-fifth of American drivers are now over the age of 65? In 2016, drivers in the 75-79 age group increased by five percent which was the highest increase followed closely by the 85 and older age group with an increase of just over four and a half percent.

What does this mean for American driving habits?  Consumer Reports stated in June 2017 that their research indicated seniors are driving safer and driving longer. University of Colorado medical researcher on senior-driving safety Dr. Emmy Betz says that older adults do not get enough credit for safe driving habits. She added:

“Older drivers are more likely to use seat belts and follow speed limits. They are less likely to drive at night or while intoxicated, or to text while they drive. Many seniors also regulate their driving behavior, limiting their trips at night, on highways, or during rush hour.” 

In contrast, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a study in December 2017 stating that drivers 65 and older are more than twice as likely as younger drivers to die in a car accident.

The Foundation’s Executive Director David Yang said, “While many seniors are considered to be safe drivers, they are also the most vulnerable.” Not only that, older drivers are also more inclined to have physical problems that prevent them from driving like they used to when younger. More than seven in ten of the drivers surveyed indicated they had health conditions that affect muscles and bones, including conditions such as arthritis, hip/knee replacements and joint pain.

Older drivers could easily make their cars safer to drive but only 10 percent in the AAA Foundation survey said they have done so, and only 90 percent of those who had indicated said they did not follow recommendations to work with a trained professional to install the safety devices.

Elin Schold-Davis of the older driver initiative with the American Occupational Therapy Association recently said, “When an ache or pain begins hindering driving ability, many older drivers are able to continue driving safely after making a few adjustments.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has information on driving with certain medical conditions that might be useful.

The NHTSA also has an online brochure for adapting motor vehicles for older drivers. Here are a number of device adaptions that older drivers could utilize to keep themselves mobile and driving:

  • Mirrors that boost visibility and minimize blind spots.
  • Pedal extensions: help maximize visibility while giving space between the body and the steering wheel/airbag.
  • Hand controls that enable driving without using the feet.
  • Seat cushions: Helps again with visibility and reduces back and hip pain while driving.
  • Steering wheel covers: help improve overall grip.

In recent months, a number of articles have come out proclaiming that seniors will be a primary demographic for the use of self-driving cars and for ride share services in general. A number of automakers have recently announced plans to test driverless cars in retirement villages of Florida and California. The challenge for seniors (and everyone else) will be whether or not driverless cars will truly be available on demand. Independence means going where you want, when you want.

Whether seniors are at the vanguard of the autonomous car movement or not, those with competent mental and physical abilities should have the choice to drive or be driven.

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One Response to “Senior Drivers in Transition”

  1. David Holzman says:

    My mother’s cousin, Ruth Hornbein Kahn Stovroff, drove until she was 98, and passed a driving test when she was 96–with flying colors.