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Study Confirms Driving Skills Decline with Age Increasing the Risk for Fatal Crashes

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Elderly  Drivers Becoming the Norm in the U.S.

In the United States, 33 million  elderly drivers aged 65 and older were on the roads in 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, 500 elderly adults are injured every day in car accidents, the agency reported.

Elderly Drivers Study

In the study, researchers examined the driving habits of 266 healthy  elderly drivers ranging in age from 70 to 88 who lived independently and drove at least once a week. Besides completing questionnaires about their health and driving history, the  elderly drivers took tests on various driving skills such as discrimination, reaction time and the ability to stay focused amid distractions or adapt to changing conditions.

During the 12-mile road test, a professional instructor with access to a brake rode in the car. An occupational therapist sat in the back seat and scored the drivers for skills such as using signals and mirrors, checking the "blind spot" and problems that included veering, tailgating, inappropriate braking and accelerating.

Overall, 17% of the elderly drivers made serious mistakes that required the instructor to grab the steering wheel or apply the brake.

The rate of critical mistakes among elderly drivers aged 85 to 89 (who had an average of almost four critical mistakes) was also four times higher than among those 70 to 74 years old (who had an average of less than one).

The most common error was a failure to check the "blind spot" for other vehicles. Drivers reporting a previous crash on the questionnaire made more errors connected to observation, and scored lower on appropriate braking and acceleration, the study found.

Men and women performed equally well on the tests.

"The results fit well with about 30 years of previous research," said Harvey L. Sterns, a research professor of gerontology at Northeastern Ohio Medical University. Driving ability, in general, declines with age, he said.

But Sterns cautioned that many  elderly drivers have no problems handling a car. Some elderly drivers s in the oldest age group studied made no errors, he said.

"There are greater differences within age groups than between age groups," said Sterns, also a professor of psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio. "It's hard to know whether [the study is] showing dramatic changes relative to an earlier time."

Is Retraining the Brain for Older Drivers the Solution?

"It's really hard to re-train the brain," said Renee Pekmezaris, vice president for community and health services in the Research Department of Population Health at North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System in New York.

Other studies show that cognitive re-training does not reduce older people's driving crashes, said Pekmezaris. "I'm not as hopeful as the study authors about that," she said. "But there are other things we can do."

Moving Forward: Elderly Drivers and Driver Safety an Important Issue

As the population ages, the safe driving skills of the elderly will increase in significance, said Sterns. Pinpointing cognitive functions that are linked to driving skills is "an important first step," says Sterns noting some of these functions could be improved with training.

The authors said their findings are useful for those designing roads and signs, although they acknowledge their study has limitations. One is that drivers' vision wasn't evaluated.

Modifying Driving Habits May be the Key

Pekmezaris said aging drivers might do well to modify their driving habits and take advantage of technological advances.

Older drivers may need to restrict their driving to daylight hours, and make use of anti-glare equipment and onboard anti-collision devices, she said.

"What we really need is to get physicians involved in this," said Pekmezaris. Earlier research found that 89% of elderly drivers reported they would stop driving if their doctors recommended it, according to Pekmezaris.

Sources: 

  • May 16, 2011, online, Neuropsychology;
  • Renee Pekmezaris, Ph.D., vice president, community and health services research, Department of Population Health, North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System;
  • Harvey L. Sterns, Ph.D., research professor of gerontology, Department of Family and Community Medicine, Northeastern Ohio Medical University, and professor of psychology, University of Akron, Ohio;
Last modified on Wednesday, 01 June 2011 17:26
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