Elderly drivers: When to turn over the keys

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects
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DENVER - Statistics show most people outlive their ability to drive safely by about six years.  While people 75 to 84 have about the same accident rate as teenagers, once they are 85 years or older that rate quadruples according to a Carnegie Mellon study. 

When is it time to stop driving? It's such a touchy subject that seniors and their families avoid it. For older drivers their independence is at stake. For families it's about keeping mom and dad and other drivers safe. Now, new research says that getting the family doctor involved early on could help seniors plan for their driving retirement. 

For many, driving is the key to independence. 

"As long as I can get my driver's license renewed, I am going to stay behind the wheel," said Ethel Harris, a 91 year old driver.

"When will I stop driving?  103," said Ruth Lynn, who's 83 years old.

"I think that a lot of people who know that they shouldn't be driving, but they still are because it is a freedom," said Jeannie Baird.

Many seniors are safe drivers, but some are not.  The University of Colorado School of Medicine asked elderly drivers about who should make the call to quit driving and when. Enter the family doctor.

"We were talking about whether preventive conversations would be helpful. For example, say your 65 and you are a safe driver, but at your routine appointment your doctor says, ‘Hey, have you thought about ten years from now, when your skills start to decline?' What we found is that older drivers were generally open to have those kinds of conversations, but we also found those conversations really aren't happening," explained Marian "Emmy" Betz, MD, MPH, Emergency Physician and Injury Epidemiologist, The University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Doctors wait to see red flags like vision or memory problems. The study says "anticipatory guidance"—talking early and often about health and driving—might make it easier for older patients to discuss it. Many are also more likely to accept advice from their doctor than from a family member. 

"I think the take home is not that the family members shouldn't be involved, but the doctor should be," Betz said.

Betz says this is a public health issue. She's developing a screening tool for doctors called "crash" that could help them begin talking with their older patients about health issues and safe driving.

According to the CDC, there are 33 million drivers aged 65 and older in the U.S., and by 2030, federal estimates show that there will be about 57 million, making up about a quarter of all licensed drivers.

Additional Information:

Elderly drivers aged 65 and older have an increased risk of becoming involved in a motor vehicle crash. It is stated that an average of 500 elderly people are injured a day in car accidents. Males have a higher death rate than females when it comes to car accidents, especially within the elderly. Elderly drivers are less likely to drive without a seat belt on, they will only drive during the day and when the weather is clear, and they are not as likely to drive under the influence of alcohol. (Source: http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/older_adult_drivers/adult-drivers_factsheet.html)

WHEN TO STOP DRIVING: It is the driver's discretion to decide when to stop getting behind the wheel. Physical conditions may affect an elderly person's driving as well such as:


NEW TEST: Clinicians often wait too long before talking to elderly patients about giving up driving even though many may be open to those discussions earlier, according to a new study at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the CU College of Nursing.  "These conversations often don't happen until clinicians see a `red flag' which could mean an accident or some physical problem that makes driving more difficult for the elderly," said Marian Betz, MD, MPH, at the CU School of Medicine and lead author of the study, was quoted as saying. "But what's interesting is that most elderly drivers we spoke with said they were open to having earlier discussions." The study involved focus groups and interviews with 33 drivers over age 65 and eight health care providers including physicians, nurses, and physician assistants. The study reported that elderly drivers were open to these discussions because they generally saw their medical providers as "fair minded." At the same time, the majority said they didn't believe their providers were aware of their driving status or ability.  The researchers recommend a practice known as "anticipatory guidance" in gently preparing elderly drivers - by monitoring physical and mental changes - for the day when they could no longer operate a vehicle safely. Doctors could include driving status in their patient questionnaires and talk about it during regular office visits, they said. (Source: cdenver.edu/about/newsroom/newsreleases/Pages/Clinicians-often-wait-for-red-flags-before-discussing-elderly-driving.aspx)