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Posted: October 29, 2008

Still Driving After All These Years

When Safety is a Must

Derrick Anderson of Lexington, Ohio, is worried about his dad. At age 72, John Anderson still values his independence, and that includes his ability to drive his car to the grocery store, the VFW, and the doctor’s office. But Derrick wants to be sure it’s safe for his dad to drive. John’s vision isn’t quite as good as it used to be, he has a bad back, and he has arthritis in his hands.

Is it time for John to hang up the keys? Not necessarily. And it’s the same for many aging drivers, who aren’t quite at the point of taking away the keys, but where safety must be paramount. And where it’s up to the senior’s family to see that safety is maintained.

There are a lot of reasons for a parent to give up the car keys, and we strongly encourage you to encourage them to stop driving if they are no longer able to do so safely. That includes if their vision is bad enough to impair their driving ability, or if they are cognitively impaired. But there are a lot of accommodations that can be made to make driving easier and safe for someone like John.

John’s vision was his son’s biggest concern. It wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t as good as it used to be. This may seem obvious, but the first thing to do is to get dad an eye exam. It turned out that John needed new glasses.

Seniors’ Safety Guide

The National Older Driver Research and Training Center at the University of Florida and AAA recently put together a guide called Smart Features for Mature Drivers, which offers some other solutions for John. For example, they recommend thick steering wheels, which are easier to grip, and keyless entry. They also suggest larger dashboard controls with buttons instead of knobs, because these are easier for arthritic hands to operate. Power windows are also easier to operate. Drivers with arthritis may also prefer four-door models over two-door models, because the doors are lighter and easier to open.

The guide also has ways to help deal with John’s bad back. Drivers with limited mobility in their back or neck may have trouble turning to look behind them to back up or merge into traffic, which can be dangerous. The aging driver can benefit from large, wide-angled mirrors that reduce blind spots. An adjustable steering wheel can be positioned to minimize back, neck, and shoulder discomfort. Heated seats with lumbar support can be especially helpful for bad backs.

The Truth About Mature Drivers

John is not alone in having some age-related difficulties with driving. In fact, AAA says drivers as young as 40 begin to experience some mental and physical changes that can affect their driving abilities. Let’s take a look:

At Age 40: Thought processing slows, night vision worsens, and recovery from glare slows.

At Age 50: Nine out of 10 people require bifocals, and reaction time slows.

At Age 60: Range of motion decreases by as much as 25%.

At Age 70: Arthritis may make motion painful and restrict movement, and conditions like stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes can affect perception and behavior.

Now, we’re not suggesting that drivers as young as 40 get off the road. However, we are suggesting that all drivers and their caregivers take a good look at the limitations and implement ways to make driving safer and more comfortable.

Conditions Requiring Solutions

We’ve already talked about ways to cope with arthritis and bad backs. What about other problems seniors might experience?

For hip pain or limited range of motion in the knees, older drivers should look for power seats that adjust six ways -- forward, back, up, down, and seatbacks that adjust forward and backward. That way they can get in and out of the car more easily and adjust the seats so they have enough leg room. The seat should be at the proper height, which is midway between the lower thighs and buttocks. Concave bucket seats are particularly difficult to get out of. Drivers should also look for a car with a low door threshold for easier entry.

Drivers with glaucoma or cataracts, or those who have slow glare recovery, can benefit from extendable sun visors that are easy to adjust. Those with poor night vision should look for large audio and climate controls with contrasting lettering, which are easy to see and will minimize distraction.

Other Safety Features

There are some other safety features that all drivers, but especially seniors, should look for in a car:

Talking to Dad About Safe Driving

Dad may be defensive and resistant initially, especially if he thinks you are trying to take away the keys. But once he realizes you want to work with him to help him stay independent, he’ll probably be cooperative. You can call AAA to get a copy of Smart Features for Mature Drivers and go over it together, or just share this article with him.

In John’s case, John decided to by a new car that had some of the features recommended by the National Older Driver Research and Training Center and AAA. He sold his old car to his son. Derrick felt much better about his dad driving, and John felt much better, too.

But purchasing a new car may not be necessary. In many cases, simple and less costly modifications can be made to your loved one’s existing car to make it safer. Don’t automatically assume you can’t “afford” to have a safer car. Take some time to determine which safety features you need, and then look at what you can do to make your parent’s car safer.

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Kelly Morris is a former social worker and home health and hospice worker whose writing has appeared in a number of health-related journals. She lives in Mansfield, Ohio, and can be reached at multihearts@hotmail.com.

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