When seniors get behind the wheel or hang up their keys

Driving in the age where people are distracted by the GPS or cell phones is dangerous. It's especially difficult when the driver is senior citizen.

Driving in the age where people are distracted by the GPS or cell phones is dangerous. It’s especially difficult when the driver is senior citizen.

Driving gives a sense of independence and deciding to retire from driving can be difficult. However, there’s a growing number of senior drivers on the road today and studies are showing that seniors are increasingly more at risk when they are behind the wheel.

In 2012, there were almost 36 million licensed drivers who were aged 65 and older, according to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention report.

But a study by the AAA foundation for Traffic Safety shows that drivers over the age of 65 are almost twice as likely to die in car crashes. Fatal crash rates increase (on a per mile basis) starting at ages 70-74 and are the highest among drivers 85 and older, as reported by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

According to a U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2014 Fatality Analysis Reporting System report, of the 462 traffic fatalities in Washington, there were 65 fatalities in the 55-65 age range, 53 fatalities in the 65-74 age range, and 41 fatalities in the 75 and over age range.

Many of these traffic incidents and fatalities aren’t because seniors are reckless drivers, but rather due to changes in physical condition and cognitive functioning.

For example, a driver’s eyesight and hearing are critical in preventing accidents. Diminishing eye sight, hearing and reaction time can inhibit safe driving. So while senior drivers have years of driving experience and mature decision-making ability, the brain will take longer to process information and react quickly.

Tips for driving safely

If you’re still driving in your golden years, it is important to be cautious. Many of these physical and cognitive impairments can be reduced through regular exercise, physical examinations and brain activities.

Be weary of any medications you are taking. Some medication, such as cough medicine, decongestants, and some antidepressants, can impair your ability to drive.

Make sure your have the right car that fit your needs. Perhaps a car with power steering and power brakes might be more suitable. Taking the car for regular maintenance is crucial.

If you’re feeling anxious about driving on freeways or certain roads, use alternative routes. When driving, leave room in front of you to ensure sufficient braking space. Avoid all distractions, including talking on the phone or checking your GPS.

There is also an AARP Driver Safety Program, hosted at the Renton Senior Activity Center, that covers state laws, driving conditions and safety. Seniors will also qualify for state-mandated insurance premium reduction, upon course completion.

“It’s a refresher course, and any refresher is better than none,” said Debbie Little, recreation coordinator at the center. “And it’s all in a classroom; there’s no driving. So you’re just going over the rules of the road. It’s very valuable… to be reminded of the laws.”

Hanging up the keys

According to Little, the decision to give up driving can be a life-altering one.

“That’s one of the biggest fears and biggest adjustments as people get older,” she said. “They lose their independence when they lose their license to drive… they can’t get out-and about like they used to.”

However, there are options and resources available to help seniors find transportation. There is Volunteer Transportation, a program found to help meet transportation needs of King County seniors and families. This service is for seniors 60 and over who live in King County. You will be able to schedule a ride by calling 206-448-5740.

The Hyde Shuttle is a free van service that will transport for anyone 55 and older with disabilities anywhere within city limits. You can schedule a ride by calling 206-727-6262.

Anyone aged 65 and older can purchase a regional reduced fare permit that is combined with an ORCA card.

For more resources information about driving safer, visit www.seniordriving.aaa.com.

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