An Alternative to Giving Up the Car Keys

178576069Robert Cullon, 80, has a neurological condition that makes his feet numb and forces him to rely on a walker. He thought he was driving just fine, but his six children were worried.

“They kept saying, ‘Are you sure you’re doing all right?’ ” he said. “They broke me down.”

Instead of handing over his keys, though, Mr. Cullon, who lives in Albany, decided to consult a driving rehabilitation specialist. She rode with him, observing how well he used his feet, how good his reflexes were and how good his range of motion was in his shoulders and neck. Then she pronounced him fit to take the wheel.

His children backed off — and he felt reassured. As the baby boomer generation ages, more older drivers like Mr. Cullon are going to be on the road. In the United States, about 35 million licensed drivers are over 65, an increase of 20 percent since 2003, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

 While that is a scary thought for some people, the common perception, that the only real choice is between ignoring the difficulties faced by elderly drivers and taking away the car keys, is wrong. “We’re evolving in our thinking,” said Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist and executive director of the Hartford insurance company’s Center for Mature Market Excellence. “We’re not just looking at the transition from driver to passenger, but how we can empower drivers to extend their driving as long as possible.”

As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in its five-year safety plan for older drivers , released this month, the effort involves both behavioral and technological changes. But first, here’s what the statistics show: Most people assume that accident rates increase as drivers age, but the groups that have the highest fatal crash rates are teenagers and those 75 years and older, said Sharon Gilmartin, a spokeswoman for AAA.

“From 65 to 70 years old, you’re looking at rates similar to middle-aged drivers,” she said. In fact, older drivers are often safer, because they are less likely to speed, drive drunk or text while driving.

But per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase beginning at age 75 and rise sharply after age 80. That’s not necessarily because older people have more accidents but because they are more fragile and less likely to recover from serious injuries, Ms. Gilmartin said.

Teenagers are much more likely to kill someone else in a crash; older adults are far more likely to kill themselves.

“A 50-year-old driver may not be safe, and a 95-year-old driver may function perfectly,” she said. “Driving is a function of ability, not age.”

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An Alternative to Giving Up the Car Keys by Alina Tugend
The New York Times
December 18, 2013

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