Who's Driving Grandma?

Adults Too Old to Drive Need Help

From the WebMD Archives

July 29, 2002 -- Many people plan well ahead for the days when their children will be begging for the car keys. But a much bigger challenge may be preparing for when your own days behind the wheel become numbered.

A new study estimates that more than 600,000 people over age 70 stop driving each year and must start depending on others to get around. But researchers say few people have thought about how the transition from driver to nondriver will affect themselves or their loved ones.

"This change in status can create unforeseen economic and social burdens that need to be addressed in the same way we have encouraged people to think about planning for retirement and end-of-life care," says study author Dan Foley, MS, a biostatistician at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), in a news release.

Almost 10% of America's drivers are over age 65, and that number is expected to grow rapidly as the baby boomers begin to reach their golden years. One in five Americans is expected to be over age 65 by the year 2030.

Mile for mile, older drivers are three times as likely to crash while driving than middle-aged drivers. But researchers say senior citizens drive fewer miles than younger drivers, which makes their overall crash risk about equal to others.

For the study, researchers analyzed a national sample of nearly 5,000 men and women over 70 who were drivers in 1993 and then resurveyed in 1995. Their findings appear in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers found drivers aged 70 to 74 were expected to drive another 11 years, on average. But the men were expected to live another 17 years and the women nearly 21 years. That means this age group would be dependent on alternative transportation for about six to 10 years.

The study also found driving cessation peaked at age 85, which is of special concern because the over-85 age group is currently the fastest growing segment of the population.

Researchers say driving requires maintaining competence in three areas: physical fitness, thinking clearly, and seeing well. Once a person becomes disabled or loses function in one or more of these areas, his or her driving skills become significantly hampered.

"Over time, people seem to reach thresholds where they believe they can no longer safely drive," says Foley. "[W]ith age, a person's competence and confidence behind the wheel may erode to the point that quitting becomes an unfortunate necessity and dependence on other means of transportation becomes an inevitable reality."