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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Older Drivers: The Car Key Decision

As the number of older drivers increases as the population ages, the question arises more often: When should the car keys be taken away to ensure the safety of older drivers -- and others on the road?

WebMD Feature

When a police cruiser drove up to the Casa del Rio retirement community in Peoria, Ariz., assistant manager Debra Gauthier wasn't a bit surprised to see Mr. C, as she calls him, sitting in the back seat. The 93-year-old resident was being brought home by the authorities because he had parked his car in Phoenix and lost it. And it wasn't the first time he'd had a memory lapse on the road.

Fearful that Mr. C would crash while driving the next time, Gauthier and her co-workers made a plan. When the police returned his blue Ford Taurus, a Casa del Rio staff member parked it far from Mr. C's normal space, disconnected the battery, and held on to his keys.

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"But he found it," Gauthier says. "He had it fixed and started driving again with an extra set of keys." He didn't even remember that he had lost the car. When she told Mr. C he shouldn't be driving, he became furious.

The to-drive or not-to-drive question will loom for more and more American families. In 2000, 1 in 10 drivers was over 70 -- a 36% increase from 1990, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety administration.

While some older drivers remain competent, others do not. In 2001, people 65 and older made up 16% of the driving age population and accounted for 16% of fatal vehicle crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. By 2030, elderly people will make up 25% of all drivers and be involved in 25% of fatal accidents, the institute says.

The Legal Approach

Deciding which older drivers are safe on the road and which are dangerous is no small task. The best way to keep drivers like Mr. C off the road, some say, are stringent state laws that require more frequent testing of all older drivers, regardless of their driving records. But others see that approach as "ageist."

Nonetheless, 13 states require older drivers to renew their licenses more frequently than younger drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In Illinois, for instance, once drivers reach age 75 they must take a road test every time they renew their license. They must renew every two years starting at age 81 and every year after age 87.

Other states with special provisions for older drivers include Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, and Rhode Island.

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