Biggest dangers for elderly drivers

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, teenagers and elderly drivers are involved in more crashes and fatal wrecks than anyone else. Teens often lack experience behind the wheel, while elderly drivers are battling diminishing skills.

The NHTS says right now, there are as many as 35 million drivers on the road age 65 and older, and with an aging baby-boomer population, that number is going to go up even more. Experts say elderly drivers are not only at an increased risk for an accident, but as their memory declines, they may get confused and lost on the road.

Patrick Baker, an occupational therapist with Cleveland Clinic who evaluates the skills of older drivers, says there are lots of things that make it harder to drive as we age. 

"You're going to lose some visual skills. Your cognition is not going to be as good as it was when you were 20 or 25. Physically, you may have arthritis, maybe have had a hip replacement, you've had some surgeries, maybe some cardiac problems -- all of these things start to affect you," he explained.

Baker says confusion behind the wheel can be also be an issue, even for people who've lived in the same place their entire lives.

"Buildings come down and new buildings come up, so it looks different. Simply going a different direction from what you're accustomed to may make it really difficult to understand where I'm going and now I can't figure out how to route-plan to get back to where I need to go," Baker explained.

Baker says when an elderly driver gets confused they often drive around looking for something familiar and could end up hours from home. He says one of the best ways for you to tell if your parent or grandparent is having trouble remembering things on the road is to ride along with them and pay attention to the following:

  1. How well can they read street signs and route-plan?
  2. Watch to see if road construction or detours confuse them?
  3. Do they do things like stop at a green light?


Baker says if you notice some of these things happening, it might be time for them to see an occupational therapist who can evaluate their driving and memory skills.

"We look at vision, visual perception skills, cognition, and physical abilities. All of that takes a half-hour to 45 minutes, and then we typically go on the road for 45 minutes just to see how they do," he explained.

Baker says your elderly loved one's physician will typically write a prescription for an evaluation with an occupational therapist.

"We're trained to look at vision, cognition, physical aspects of their function, and we understand the medical aspects of the different conditions and diseases that they might have," Baker said.

Once the evaluation is complete, a plan will be put into place that will determine how much, or how far, they should be driving. 

Baker adds, when a crash happens, an older driver's fragility can lead to more severe injuries. He says the goal is to keep everyone safe on the road.

Brooks Rehabilitation in Jacksonville offers a local driver rehabilitation program.  For more information visit BrooksHealth.org or you can call Brooks at (904) 345-7619.

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