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  health > aging > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

Driving with care in the later years

October 13, 1999
Web posted at: 3:13 PM EDT (1913 GMT)

In this story:

A growing problem

Aging signs

Driver's training, senior style


By John A. Cutter

(WebMD) -- Sometimes when a person says, "I still drive," it's the same as saying, "I'm not really old yet."

When Philip LePore's father reached his 80s, he started to show the first distressing signs of mental impairment. It affected many areas of his life, including his ability to drive a car.

"We were worried, but we were in denial," says LePore, 57, who runs the Older Driver Family Assistance Project for the New York State Office for the Aging, in Albany, New York, and has developed a book, "When you are concerned: Info for families with an aging driver," to help caregivers deal with aging drivers. "We didn't want to think that my father was getting old," he adds.

Like many families dealing with the problems of aging, LePore's family feared what might happen if the elder LePore got into an auto accident. They also worried about how their father would get around without a car -- and how he would handle the loss of independence and self-esteem that go hand in hand with losing a driver's license.

But experts say not all older people must stop driving, especially if they understand the aging process. Some will need to compensate for age-related changes in hearing, vision and reaction times by not driving at night, in bad weather or on busy roads. Others will need to work with a driver rehabilitation specialist, especially if a chronic illness or a stroke leaves them partially disabled. These specialists are often occupational or physical therapists who have been professionally certified by the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.

A growing problem

Aging is a critical issue in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 77 million baby boomers here. As boomers age, researchers and policy-makers are considering a public health campaign to stress the importance of keeping older people mobile -- especially for driving purposes -- as long as it's safe and practical.

Today, there are 19 million drivers ages 70 and older, most of them safer drivers than those in any other age group, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 20 years, the number will grow to 31 million.

Aging signs

Regardless, older people need to exercise caution because recent research has uncovered some key physical changes that can lead to problems with driving. Not all of them are inevitable as people age, but many occur in older people.

John Eberhard of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration points out that, by age 70, the eyes become slower to adapt to light and darkness, which can create oversensitivity to bright sunlight and glare. Also, the eyes lose some ability to process light, which makes seeing at night harder. Depth perception and judging the speed of oncoming traffic also weaken as a person nears age 80, as the eyes' lenses grow thicker.

Other common health problems, like arthritis, can make it harder to drive by limiting people's ability to turn the head easily or move a foot from the accelerator to the brake, experts agree. And the use of multiple prescription drugs may cause drowsiness or anxiety, thus impairing driving skills.

Older drivers often find it difficult to react quickly as they process multiple images or sounds, such as when they're looking for street signs while monitoring traffic and talking with a passenger. A test for this skill helps predict which older drivers are at higher risk of accidents, says Dr. Karlene Ball of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who helped develop the testing equipment.

"You only want someone to quit driving if it is absolutely necessary for their safety or the safety of others," says Ball, who is organizing national research projects that will study the best testing methods and retraining programs.

Driver's training, senior style

Training programs can improve older drivers' skills and add more years of safe driving, Eberhard says. "The message is, hey, if we can identify your capacities and your weaknesses, we can keep you driving," Eberhard says. "We can keep you mobile and we can keep you independent."

Programs that can help older drivers include AARP's 55 ALIVE/Mature Driving program. "Most of us will start to experience age-related changes," says Brian Greenberg of AARP in Washington, D.C. "But we try to teach specific ways you can adjust to compensate." The program teaches techniques such as increasing the amount of distance between your car and other cars, thus allowing for more time to react, and offers strategies like avoiding left turns on busy roads, one of the most common places older people have car accidents.

Copyright 1999 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

Hearing loss

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
AARP 55 ALIVE/Mature Driving
The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists
AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
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