Older Driver Safety

When is the right time to have the "driving" conversation with a parent, spouse or friend? It is not an easy conversation. The Hartford in conjunction with MIT AgeLab have researched this subject and the attached article is a summary of their findings and suggestions.

Accidents involving older drivers often call attention to the issue of older adults and driving safety. The facts alone may seem confusing. Statistics indicate that most older adults are safe drivers, with high safety belt use and few citations for alcohol-related charges. However, medical conditions, medication usage and reduced physical function can increase the risk of accidents and injury among older adults. Factor in the sense of independence that driving represents for older adults, and you can understand why driving safety for older adults is an emotionally charged topic. The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence® and the MIT AgeLab developed this information to help families initiate productive conversations with older adults about driving safety. These suggestions are based on a nationally representative survey of drivers over the age of 50, focus groups with older adults who have modified their driving, and interviews with family caregivers of persons with dementia.

As a group, older drivers are typically safe. The actual number of accidents involving older drivers decreases as age increases. Experts attribute this decline to self-imposed limitations, such as driving fewer miles and avoiding night driving, rush-hour traffic and other difficult conditions. Therefore, sharing the roadways with older drivers poses a relatively low risk to other drivers. However, older drivers, especially after age 70, have a higher risk of being involved in a collision for every mile they drive. Compared to other age groups, drivers age 70 and older have higher crash rates per mile driven than middle age drivers, yet not as high as young drivers. The rate of fatalities increases slightly after age 70 and significantly after age 85. This higher rate is due to the increased inability to withstand the physical trauma that often occurs with age. Although older persons with health issues can be satisfactory drivers, they have a higher risk of injury or death in an accident, regardless of fault. These statistics can help you see the risk for older drivers; however, the decision to limit driving depends on the individual. Each family must ask, “Is my older relative safe?” Ongoing discussions and objective assessments will help older drivers and their families evaluate the risks in their unique situations.

WHEN FACED WITH A DISCUSSION ABOUT DRIVING ABILITIES, WITH WHOM DO OLDER ADULTS PREFER TO TALK? Hearing sensitive information from the right person can make a big difference. To increase the chances of success, carefully select the person who will initiate the discussion and have others reinforce decisions about driving. Older adults typically prefer to speak confidentially about driving safety with someone they trust. Often family members can form a united front with doctors and friends to help older drivers make good driving decisions. When choosing a family member to initiate the discussion, consider the personalities involved and past experience approaching difficult topics. Some families mistakenly assign the most outspoken or authoritative member to deliver their concerns as an ultimatum. Such persons are not ideal to open the early discussions on driving, they may better serve as the enforcer of driving decisions. The Hartford/MIT AgeLab survey indicates that older drivers have specific preferences for these conversations that vary based on several factors, such as marital status, gender, health and presence of other supportive individuals. Marital status is a significant factor that determines who should have the conversation with the older driver. The top choice of married drivers in our study (57 percent) is to hear about driving concerns first from their spouses. Older drivers living alone prefer to have these conversations with their doctors, adult children or a close friend. Let’s look more closely at each of these groups.

SPOUSES According to our survey results, men prefer to hear from a spouse — more than do women. Spouses have the advantage of observing driving over time and in different situations, as well as years of experience in dealing with sensitive topics and each other’s limitations. Not all married couples choose their spouses for this conversation. Fifteen percent of older men and women (in our study) said their spouses were their last choice for hearing about driving concerns, reinforcing the importance of assessing individual preferences before having conversations about driving.

DOCTORS Outside of the family, the opinions of doctors are often valued by older drivers. Many older adults think that physicians can precisely determine their ability to drive safely. And people who have health problems are more likely to listen to the advice of a doctor about driving. However, not all doctors agree that they are the best source for making decisions about driving. Physicians may not be able to detect driving problems based on office visits and physical examinations alone. They can assess diminished visual, cognitive and motor skills, or refer the driver to an independent occupational therapist who is qualified to conduct a comprehensive driving evaluation. This referral may avoid unnecessary conflict when the doctor, family members, and older driver have differing opinions. Family members should work with doctors and share observations about driving behavior and health issues to help older adults make good driving decisions.

ADULT CHILDREN Adult children seem to have more influence with parents over 70 than with younger parents in their 50s and 60s, according to our study results. These differences often correlate to health changes and shifts in parent-child relationships later in life. Older drivers also tend to be more open to adult children who live nearby. Our study found that women are generally more receptive than men to the prospect of hearing from their adult children. Among individuals living alone, 28 percent said they would prefer to hear about unsafe driving from their adult children, while nearly 14 percent of men and women living alone ranked their children as the last ones from whom they want to hear about driving.

mark kardon