Highway Safety for Older Adults

Highway Safety for Older Adults

Kate Koehler

August 1,  2012

Are you over 65? Do you still drive? Chances are that you do. Most of us rely heavily on our vehicles to get us where we need to go. This is especially true in our more rural areas. We count on our cars to help us to stay active and independent.

Aging is a fact of life. According to census data in 2000, the U.S. population included about 35 million people age 65 and older, making up 12.4 percent of the total population.

Data from the National Household Travel Survey indicate that compared to younger people, older adults make a greater percentage of their trips as drivers.

Sandra Rosenbloom, professor of planning and adjunct professor of gerontology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, says, "Regardless of where they live, most older people are extremely dependent on the private car, either as a passenger or a driver, and increasingly the latter."

Maintaining safe mobility through the latter years is one of the highest priorities for many Americans and has obvious impacts on health and well being. According to a U.S. Department of Transportation report, "Safe Mobility for a Maturing Society: Challenges and Opportunities," most older adults continue to live in the same homes or localities where they lived before they retired, close to family and friends, leading active lives, and aging in familiar surroundings. More than three-fourths of the older population live in the suburbs and rural areas where automobiles are the primary mode of transportation.

Although the data show that many older drivers are quite responsible (high safety belt usage and low rates for both alcohol-related crashes and speeding), fatality rates per 100,000 populations for older road users parallel the high rates for teens.

This is mostly due to the greater fragility of older adults. Our bodies are less able to sustain severe trauma to the bones and organs, not only because of age, but because of various diseases and conditions that are more likely to be present as we age.

Does this mean we should give up driving? Of course not. What we should do, however, is be more observant and aware of everything we do while driving. Everyone ages differently, so there is no arbitrary cutoff as to when someone should stop driving. By reducing risk factors and incorporating safe driving practices, many of us can continue driving safely long into our senior years. But we do have to pay attention to any warning signs that age is interfering with our driving safety and make appropriate adjustments. Following are some safety tips for mature drivers.

€¢ Understand how aging affects driving. As we age, factors such as decreased vision, impaired hearing or slowed motor reflexes may become a problem. Aging tends to result in a reduction of strength, coordination and flexibility, which can have a major impact on your ability to safely control a car. To continue driving safely, you need to recognize that changes can happen. Get help when they do and be willing to listen if others voice concerns.

€¢ Know the warning signs of unsafe driving. Red flags include frequent close calls (such as almost crashing), dents and scrapes on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors and curbs.

€¢ Maximize safety on the road. Get your eyes checked every year. Have your hearing checked annually. Talk with your doctor about the effects that ailments or medications may have on your driving ability. Sleeping well. Getting enough sleep is essential to driving well.

For your own safety and that of others, you should drive defensively, know your limitations and listen to the concerns of others. For more information on highway safety, you may attend one of the talks at a Senior Center in August. See Prime Time Health Calendar for dates, times and locations.

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