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Guest editorial: Older drivers posing new road issues

August 25, 2018

Much is written about the danger young drivers face on the road. Much less is reported about motorists at the other end of the spectrum. That needs to change with a focus on an increasingly aging population that includes more and more drivers over age 65.

New research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that nearly 83 percent of older drivers report never speaking to a family member or physician about their driving ability. Of the small percentage of families who do have the often-difficult conversation, 15 percent do so after a crash or traffic infraction has occurred – which could be too late.

The report is the latest research released in the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project. Researchers found that only 17 percent of older drivers report ever speaking with a family member or physician about driving safety. The most commonly cited reasons for having the discussion include:

• Driving safety concerns (falling asleep while driving, trouble staying in lane): 65 percent.

• Health issues: 22 percent.

• Driving infraction or crash: 15 percent.

• Planning for the future: 7 percent.

Waiting to talk with older drivers is increasingly not an option. The danger on the road is real – and due to their fragility, older drivers are at greater risk of death or injury if involved in a crash.

In 2016, more than 200,000 drivers age 65 and older were injured in a crash and more than 3,500 were killed. With seniors now outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of seven to 10 years, families cannot wait to talk about safety.

“There’s no perfect age to determine when it’s time to stop driving,” said Tiffany Wright, AAA Carolinas Foundation for Traffic Safety president. “Understandably, many older drivers can be hesitant to initiate these difficult conversations about their driving ability, so it is important that families are proactive in starting these discussions – because with proper planning, elderly drivers might be able to safely stay behind the wheel longer.”

AAA recommends that families start talking with older adults about safe driving early and avoid waiting until there are “red flags” like crashes, scrapes on the car (from bumping into garages, signs, etc.), new medical diagnoses or worsening health conditions. It is helpful to begin discussions when an older driver starts planning for other life changes, like retirement from work or moving to a new home.

Past research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that older adults who have stopped driving are almost two times more likely to suffer from depression and nearly five times as likely to enter a long-term care facility as those who remain behind the wheel.

“Permanently giving up the keys can have severe consequences for the health and mental well-being of older adults, especially if it’s done without prior discussions,” Wright said.

The dilemma is real. Keeping older adults on the road as long as they can drive safely is as vital to their well-being as much as getting them off the road when their driving days have past is essential to their safety and that of others.

But a person remaining behind the wheel beyond the time when he or she can drive safely is a terrible disservice to the person – and a great danger on highways and roads that in South Carolina this year had claimed 605 lives as of Aug. 12.

— The Times and Democrat, Orangeburg

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