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Should Grandpa Stop Driving?




In July 2003, nine people were killed and more than 50 injured when an 86-year-old man lost control of his car and barreled through a crowded farmers' market in Santa Monica, Calif. Police speculated that the elderly driver had accidentally stepped on the wrong pedal.

"Every single day, old people step on the gas when they mean to step on the brake," said driving instructor Kenny Morse, host of the Los Angeles television and radio call-in show, "Ask Mr. Traffic."

"Dangerous elderly drivers are a huge problem, and as baby boomers begin entering their golden years, this problem is only going to get worse," Morse said.

The burden of taking the keys away from elderly drivers usually falls upon their loved ones. "Because the [Department of Motor Vehicles] has no monitoring system for this, a family member has to be willing to confront the issue," Morse said. "But it's difficult because nobody wants to be the bad guy."

Severe physical and cognitive impairments in elderly people make an obvious case for immediate driving rights revocation. But often, family members are unsure of how or when to evaluate elderly loved ones' driving ability. Consulting professionals may help convince elderly people to retire willingly from driving, and addressing elderly drivers' needs and concerns helps them adjust smoothly to a life without wheels.

"Discussing the elderly driving issue is best done in conjunction with the family doctor or ophthalmologist that an older adult is seeing," said Cynthia Owsley, Ph.D., M.S.P.H., professor of ophthalmology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Consulting with an occupational therapist or a certified driving rehab specialist is also beneficial, especially when the older adult is evaluated at a driving assessment clinic."

Owsley, who testified before Congress on elderly driving risks in March, helped to evaluate the Useful Field of View (UFOV) computer test, a driving-assessment tool developed at UA at Birmingham. "There are functional impairments that elevate crash risk in older drivers," Owsley explained. "Glaucoma, for example, is an age-related disease that impairs peripheral vision, which is really important for safe driving."

Elderly driving risk also involves what is known as visual processing ability. "Discriminating different objects, making decisions about visual information, visual attention span, being able to divide attention between periphery and what's in front of you. ... This visual processing speed on average gets slower as we get older. And that's not good for driving," she said.

"Elderly drivers do not always realize that they are a danger," said Marion Somers, Ph.D., an elder-care expert and author of the book "Elder Care Made Easier: Doctor Marion's 10 Steps to Help You Care for an Aging Loved One," to be released by Addicus Books this fall. "I sometimes send older people to driver's education classes, which helps them realize that they're out of the game — that they really have to turn in the keys. I try to help older drivers by making them aware of the issue first."

Both determining an elderly person's driving capability and helping him or her transition to a life without wheels require special care. "It's a very delicate issue," Doctor Marion said. "It must be addressed tactfully, so elderly drivers don't hurt somebody or hurt themselves."

Doctor Marion pointed out several issues family members will have to address. "Will they be able to do their own shopping? Can they get themselves to the doctor? Can they get themselves to their bingo game on Friday night?" By addressing individual concerns with customized solutions, people are more likely to persuade their elderly relatives to stop driving. "Find out what the older person feels is going to happen when they give up the keys. Identify that issue and then address it."

Senior citizens who can no longer drive have plenty of transportation options, including personal transportation services for seniors, ride-share programs and public transportation. Some grocery stores offer delivery services.

For evenings out, Doctor Marion suggested using a taxi service, which adds an element of social glamour while avoiding the night driving that is especially difficult for elderly people with poor vision.

Despite the initial feeling of lost independence, senior citizens can adjust quickly. By meeting — and commiserating with - other elderly ex-drivers, they may even find security in new social circles while making roads safer.

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