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Health Beat: Elderly drivers: When to turn over the keys

Health Beat: Elderly drivers: When to turn over the keys

DENVER - Statistics show most people outlive their ability to drive safely by about six years. 

While people 75 to 84 have about the same accident rate as teenagers, once they are 85 years or older, that rate quadruples, according to a Carnegie Mellon study. 

When is it time to stop driving? It's such a touchy subject that seniors and their families avoid it. For older drivers their independence is at stake. For families, it's about keeping mom and dad and other drivers safe.

Now, new research says that getting the family doctor involved early on could help seniors plan for their driving retirement. 

"As long as I can get my driver's license renewed, I am going to stay behind the wheel," said Ethel Harris, a 91-year-old driver.

"When will I stop driving? 103," said Ruth Lynn, an 83-year-old driver.

"I think that a lot of people who know that they shouldn't be driving, but they still are because it is a freedom," said Jeannie Baird.

Many seniors are safe drivers, but some are not. The University of Colorado School of Medicine asked elderly drivers about who should make the call to quit driving and when. Enter the family doctor.

"We were talking about whether preventive conversations would be helpful. For example, say your 65 and you are a safe driver, but at your routine appointment your doctor says, 'Hey, have you thought about 10 years from now, when your skills start to decline?' What we found is that older drivers were generally open to have those kinds of conversations, but we also found those conversations really aren't happening," said Dr. Marian "Emmy" Betz, emergency physician and injury epidemiologist, The University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Doctors wait to see red flags like vision or memory problems. The study says "anticipatory guidance" — talking early and often about health and driving — might make it easier for older patients to discuss it. Many are also more likely to accept advice from their doctor than from a family member. 

"I think the take home is not that the family members shouldn't be involved, but the doctor should be," Betz said.

Betz said this is a public health issue. She's developing a screening tool for doctors called "crash" that could help them begin talking with their older patients about health issues and safe driving.

According to the CDC, there are 33 million drivers aged 65 and older in the U.S., and by 2030, federal estimates show that there will be about 57 million, making up about a quarter of all licensed drivers.

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