Savvy Senior: Staying safe behind the wheel: Tips for older drivers

by | April 2, 2008 12:00 am

Dear Savvy Senior,

Do you have any suggestions on how can I help my 77-year-old mother tune up her driving skills? She’s had a few fender benders last year, which worries me, but she’s still in good health and mentally sharp as a tack. She would be very upset if I tried to take her keys away. What can you tell me?

Tuning-up Terry

Dear Terry,

In our car-based culture and daily need for individual transportation, most Americans can’t fathom living without their wheels – no matter what their age. Here are some suggestions that can help.

Tips for Aging Drivers

While age doesn’t make someone a bad driver it does bring about the physical changes such as reduced vision, reaction time, hearing and range of motion that can make driving more difficult. But, what makes this a more complicated problem is these changes usually happen so slowly, most people don’t recognize them until they’re faced with a quick driving decision that they can’t react to anymore. Here are some tips that can help make your mom aware of her age-related changes and how to compensate for them so she can stay safe and drive longer.

• Get an eye exam: This is step number one because about 90 percent of the information necessary to drive we receive through our eyes, and we all know our eyesight deteriorates with age. All drivers over age 65 should have annual eye exams to stay on top of potential problems.

• Check the ears too: One-third of people over age 60 suffer from hearing loss, especially to highpitched tones, such as sirens, horns and railroad warnings. It’s wise to get a hearing test by an audiologist every two or three years.

• Take a driver-safety course: AAA and AARP offer refresher courses and your mom doesn’t have to be a member to sign up. The courses explain how aging can affect one’s driving and suggest adjustments. Taking a class may also earn her a discount on her auto insurance. To locate a nearby class contact your local AAA (www.aaa.com) or AARP (www.aarp.org/families/ driversafety; 888-227- 7669). AARP’s class can be taken in the classroom or online.

• Get a driving evaluation: If you feel your mom could use some extra help get a professional assessment done by a driver rehabilitation specialist. They will evaluate her driving ability testing for things like reaction time, decision-making skills, how well she and her car fit together and more, pinpointing her trouble areas and offering solutions. These assessments can cost several hundred dollars. To locate a specialist, visit www.aota.org/olderdriver or www.drivered. org.

• Make some adjustments: Recognizing her weaknesses and adapting her driving habits to compensate for them can go a long way in helping her stay safe. Some common adjustments include not driving after dark or during rush hour traffic, avoiding major highways or other busy roads or just cutting back on how often she drives, and not driving in poor weather conditions such as rain, fog, snow or ice.

• Check her meds: Certain drugs can interfere with driving by making the driver drowsy, dizzy or distracted. Some of the worst offenders include tranquilizers, pain pills, sleep medicines, antidepressants, cough medicines, antihistamines, and decongestants. If your mom is taking medicine, be sure she knows their possible side effects and doesn’t drive if she’s taking them.

• Get an auto check-up: Is your mom’s vehicle safe? She should have her tires checked for correct pressure, be sure all the lights and signals are working properly and keep her windows clean.

• Tap into resources: The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has some excellent free publications including “Drivers 55 Plus: Check Your Own Performance” and “How to Help an Older Driver” that you can get at www.aaafoundation.org or 800-305-7233. Also visit www.seniordrivers.org and click on “Roadwise Review” for information about obtaining the CD-ROM ($15) self-assessment tool that helps seniors check their own driving abilities.

It’s Time to Quit

If you find that your mom’s driving is not safe anymore and she needs to give it up, a great resource that can help with this difficult and touchy area is the “Family Conversations with Older Drivers” Web site at www.thehartford.com/talkwitholderdrivers.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior. org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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