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How to Keep Seniors Safe When They Drive

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Older Americans are driving more than ever. Here's a look at how you or a loved one can stay safe behind the wheel as the years roll on.

"Americans are maintaining their licenses longer than ever before, but we need to work closely with drivers and their families to make sure they know when they can no longer drive safety," says Jake Nelson of AAA, which recently analyzed older people's driving habits.

An AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study found that nearly 84% of Americans age 65 or older had driver's licenses as of 2010, while only 50% had them in 1973.

Researchers also discovered that older Americans are making more trips and driving more miles than in the past. For instance, more than 75% of male drivers over 85 still use their cars at least five days per week, as do more than 60% of females in the same age group.

Older Americans are more likely to suffer from medical conditions that can impair driving, though. For example, AAA discovered that even the "youngest" older drivers -- those 65 to 69 -- are twice as likely to report such problems as drivers age 24 to 64.

Previous AAA research has found that 69% of drivers age 55 or older regularly take at least one medication that can impair automobile operation, although 48% have never discussed the issue with their doctor.

Also see: How You Can Avoid Speeding Tickets on Summer Vacation

Nelson says such statistics are troubling because accidents involving seniors often stem not from a driver's age but from physical problems or prescription drug use.

"Older drivers who get into crashes that make headlines almost always have some underlying medical condition or take medications that puts them at risk," he says. "As a rule, older drivers are among the safest driving on the road -- definitely more safe than teenagers and even safer than middle-aged drivers."

The good news is that when older Americans begin to have trouble driving safely, varying medication, adding special car controls or making other adjustments can often correct problems, Nelson says. "There's almost always something a driver can do to extend their driving years," he says.

To keep driving safely, AAA recommends older Americans:

Know the warning signs
Nelson says older people who have problems driving safely will exhibit several signs that they or loved ones should look for. These include:

  • confusing the gas and brake pedals or having trouble working them;
  • ignoring or missing stop signs and/or traffic signals;
  • straddling lanes or weaving between them, especially without checking the rearview mirror;
  • failing to stay with the flow of other cars, prompting other drivers to honk or pass you by;
  • getting easily lost or disoriented while driving, even if traveling to a familiar place such as a relative's house.

Test their skills
AAA offers a free "Roadwise Rx" tool that lets seniors check their mental and physical skills confidentially to spot any problems. Elders can print out results and raise any issues with doctors.

Also see: The Biggest 'Distracted-Driving' Dangers

Take a brush-up class
AAA, AARP and other organizations sponsor online and in-person classes to help seniors keep driving skills sharp. Classes aren't free, but you might qualify for insurance discounts if you take one. Check out AAA's offerings here and AARP's courses here.

As for concerned family members, Nelson admits it's hard to confront elderly relatives about driving problems, but says you can make the process easier by:

  • Doing homework. Take some time to watch the older driver behind the wheel and come up with concrete examples of incidents where the person missed a stop sign or got lost.
  • Avoiding an "intervention." Don't have the whole family confront a senior about driving issues. Just pick one relative the elder seems likely to listen to. Nelson says the relative should keep the conversation positive, saying something such as: "I've noticed this and that with your driving. Maybe we should have you checked out by a doctor to see what we can do to keep you driving safely."
  • Setting up to a :driver-planning" contract. AAA has developed a "driver-planning" contract elders can use to designate a family member -- preferably years in advance -- to raise safety issues at the appropriate time.

For additional tips and resources, check out AAA's special Senior Driving site.

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