Tips for senior drivers

Robert DiGiacomo

Just because you've reached retirement age doesn't mean you need to retire from driving, provided you're still physically healthy and mentally sharp. About 32.3 million drivers over 65 were on the roads in 2008, with the number projected to pass the 40 million mark by 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“There is no magic age for safe driving,” says Julie Lee, vice president for driver safety at AARP. “It really depends on the person and their health. Someone who's 40 with health problems could have issues with driving versus someone who's in their 90s with no health issues who could be perfectly safe on the road.”

For that reason, AARP does not support mandatory driver's tests for older drivers. Only one state –– Illinois –– requires a road test for drivers 75 and up, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

At the same time, research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggests seniors may not always be the best judge of their driving abilities.

More than eight of every 10 senior drivers described their driving over a five-year period as “excellent” or “good,” despite one in four having an accident, according to the study. Less than 1 percent said their driving was “fair,” and none said it was poor.

Fortunately, a wealth of free and low-cost resources are available for seniors to brush up on their driving skills, assess whether they need to make adjustments to their cars to accommodate their aging bodies, and help family and friends determine whether it really is time for Grandma to turn over the keys.

Back to school

Drivers over 50 can refresh their knowledge of the rules of the road, learn about the dangers of distracted driving and gain tips for navigating left-hand turns and other age-related difficulties by taking AARP's Driver Safety Course.

“There are no tests –– it's purely educational,” Lee says. “By people taking it and self-regulating and learning tips, it keeps them in their cars longer. We want people to be as safe as possible, as long as possible.”

The class, which costs $12 for members and $14 for non-members, features four to eight hours of classroom instruction, depending on the state. Participants usually are eligible for a small discount on their car insurance once they complete the course. They can take the class every three years to renew the discount. Details are available at AARP.org/drive.

Virtual and real-world driving help

As part of a special section on its website, AAA offers a “Roadwise Review” to determine whether your vision, head flexibility and other functional abilities are sufficient to prevent an accident.

The test is meant as a “self-screening tool, and will let you know the areas where you may need help,” says Jake Nelson, AAA's director of traffic safety advocacy and research.

AAA has teamed up with the University of Florida’s National Older Driver Research and Training Center to develop “Smart Features for Mature Drivers,” a brochure that recommends certain types of cars and vehicles with six-way seats, keyless ignition and other bells and whistles to help address age-related physical limitations.

AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapists Association also collaborate on CarFit, a free program whose trained volunteers evaluate older drivers in a dozen safety areas. These include sitting the proper distance from the steering wheel for airbag safety, being able to reach the pedals comfortably and using head restraints properly.

How age affects insurance

Generally, car insurance rates stabilize as drivers grow older, until they reach 70, when research indicates the number of fatal accidents per miles driven goes up, according to Michael Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute.

However, turning 70 may not trigger an increase in your car insurance premium, because insurers look at a range of factors, including claims-filing experiences within age groups, a policyholder's claim-filing record, a driver's history of moving violations, and the make and model of the policyholder's car, Barry says.

What's more, senior drivers who are retired or no longer use a car for commuting are likely to qualify for a low-mileage discount, which applies to cars driven less than 7,500 miles a year.

Meanwhile, a senior may want to beef up his liability coverage and even add an umbrella policy to ensure his home, 401(k), annuities and other assets are adequately protected in case of a car crash, Barry says. Liability coverage protects you from damage you cause to another vehicle or person; umbrella coverage offers extra protection that takes effect when you've reached the liability limits of your auto or home policy.

Should Grandpa stop driving?

Although AAA doesn't back mandatory re-testing of drivers, the organization does support screening drivers for vision problems, Nelson says. Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia mandate vision tests for senior drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The states are Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

Both AAA and AARP advise family and friends of seniors to look for warning signs to help decide whether an older person should stop driving altogether. These include:

  • An increase in the number of dents, dings and scratches on a car driven by a senior.
  • Driving too fast or too slow.
  • Getting honked at by other drivers.
  • Getting lost on familiar routes.

These signs could prompt the need for a conversation about whether an older driver should get behind the wheel. AARP offers a 90-minute online seminar called “We Need to Talk” to help prepare for such a chat.

“The conversation should start early and be had frequently,” Lee says. “Sometimes it helps to have the conversation with a doctor or another third party. You have to pick who is the right messenger.”

A good time for seniors to evaluate their driving is when they begin to plan for retirement.

“Your retirement from driving can impact where you live and what types of services you can access,” Nelson says. “If there is a reason you might not be able to continue to drive after 75, it makes sense not to retire in the suburbs. You want to be somewhere you can get to a market, health care providers, church and family and friends.”

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