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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?

The Fix-It Approach

Others suggest a more humanistic approach: helping older drivers stay on the road whenever possible by correcting physical problems. For instance, obstacles that once seemed incompatible with driving, such as cataracts and slow reaction times, now may be overcome.

Older drivers with a cataract, an opaque clouding of the eye's lens, are more than twice as likely to have been in a crash in recent years than those without them.

But the good news, according to Cynthia Owsley, PhD, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is that surgery can put these drivers safely back behind the wheel. In her study of 288 drivers with cataracts, ages 55 to 85, some 187 had cataract surgery. After the surgery, the study subjects had a crash rate 50% lower than those who didn't have the surgery.

Decreased reaction times, common among seniors, also can be improved, according to Karlene Ball, PhD, director of the Center for Research on Applied Gerontology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

To evaluate reaction time and predict crash risk, Ball tested more than 3,000 seniors with driving problems who were referred to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Authority medical advisory board. She used a test called "useful field of view" in which a person reports whether they see a car or a truck coming down the road in the middle of a computer screen. At the same time, the subject must notice the location of a car on the periphery. "It starts off fairly slowly and gets faster and faster," says Ball.

Drivers who showed a 40% or greater impairment in their useful field of view were more than twice as likely to be involved in a crash within three years of testing, according to Ball's study. But after undergoing 10 computer training sessions on how to make quick decisions, people can improve their performance by as much as 300%, Ball says.

Other rehabilitation programs are available. For instance, the AARP Driver Safety Program helps older drivers sharpen their skills and develop safe defensive driving techniques. It covers the following topics:

  • Vision and hearing changes
  • Effects of medication
  • Reaction time changes
  • Left turns and other right-of-way situations
  • New laws and how they affect you
  • Hazardous driving situations

Classes are held nationwide.

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