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Driving while elderly: How to tell if it's time to park the car for good

The question of if — or when — to stop driving has a different answer for everyone, but it’s important for everyone to find that answer to avoid causing a car accident.

Aging is wonderful — it often means retirement from work, freedom from the daily rigor of raising children and a chance to spend time on hobbies. Aging also comes with challenges, including health concerns, mobility issues and difficulties with tasks you once did with ease.

One of those tasks is driving. The question of if — or when — to stop driving has a different answer for everyone, one that's important to arrive at to avoid causing a car accident that hurt or kills someone.

In fact, car crashes are responsible for 14 percent of unintentional injury deaths in people over age 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here are five ways to tell if it’s time to park the car for good.

1. You’re advised to stop driving

People cannot always accurately assess their abilities. For example, one study of drivers 65 and older asked them to rate how they would perform on a driving test, compared to others their age. A majority, 65 percent, said they would perform better than others, according to the study published in Accident Analysis & Prevention journal.

In reality, “drivers who considered themselves at least a little better than others of their age were over four times more likely to be unsafe drivers compared to others who believed they were comparable to or worse than other drivers of their age,” the study says.

If a family member has broached the subject with you, instead of taking offense, listen to their concerns. You can also ask your doctor for advice.

2. You’re past middle-age

If you’re having a hard time judging your skill, consider how you feel about young people on the road who, along with elderly people, are at high risk for causing car accidents, according to research in Public Health journal.

“Disobeying traffic controls, elevated for both the young and elderly compared with the middle-age group, was highest among the elderly,” researchers write. “ … In addition, specific physical conditions among elderly drivers may contribute to involvement in fatal (motor vehicle traffic crashes): medical or physical limitations are observed for more than six times as many elderly drivers as middle-aged drivers.”

3. You’re on medication

Even though you probably eschew driving under the influence of mind-altering substances, such as excessive alcohol, it is a problem researchers have found in elderly people, in the form of prescription drugs.

Elderly people on certain psychoactive drugs — benzodiazepines such as Xanax or Valium, antidepressants, opioids such as oxycodone, and antihistamines — have a greater chance of being involved in crashes that cause injuries, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

4. Your physical abilities have declined

Driving capabilities may decline as you age, and a major factor is vision, according to the CDC. Vision accounts for much of the information used in driving, says Vision Research.

Additionally, the ability to multi-task decreases with age, which may explain why types of car accidents likely to involve elderly drivers include right-of-way accidents and turning accidents, according to NIH Senior Health.

5. You want to make the responsible choice

Many people decide on their own to stop driving but, although 84 percent of GSA study participants said they stopped driving at the right time, “it was a decision usually made with great reluctance,” researchers write.

“Just as the teenager earning a driver's license experiences a great sense of freedom and independence, the older person often views the giving up of driving as a final rite of passage,” the study says.

Instead, focus on the freedom aging brings, such as having more time to spend with friends and family. Then take advantage of transportation options in your area and loved ones who offer help, and simply enjoy the ride. This message is proudly sponsored by WMC Tri-State Medical Network.

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