The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Senior Outlook

April 7, 2010

When is someone too old to drive?

It may be one of the most delicate topics a health professional can broach with an elderly patient — not sex, or even end-of-life choices, but driving.

Specifically, whether the patient’s physical and/or mental condition have reached a point where it’s no longer safe to drive.

The decision to give up the keys has major implications for the senior driver and the family and it is also a matter of public safety.

The rate of three fatalities per 100 million miles driven among drivers ages 75 to 84 is on par with that for teenagers; for drivers 85 and older, the fatality rate is four times higher than for teens.

People 65 and older currently make up 13 percent of the population, but account for 15 percent of both licensed drivers and traffic fatalities, according to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The number of senior drivers continues to grow. The U.S. Census projects there will be 53 million Americans over 65 by the end of this decade, and 40 million will be licensed drivers.

By the time all baby boomers are looking back at 65, there will be 70 million American seniors — and some traffic-safety experts predict they’ll be behind the wheel in 25 percent of fatal traffic accidents.

Dangerous as driving may be, studies also suggest that giving up the keys has serious consequences for seniors’ health.

According to the National Institute on Aging, about 600,000 people 70 and older stop driving each year. AARP surveys show that a third of older non-drivers complain of feeling isolated from other people, compared to 19 percent of older drivers.

A study published last year in The Journals of Gerontology found that seniors who stopped driving were four to six times more likely to die within the next three years than seniors who continued to drive.

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Senior Outlook