Older man riding motorcycle

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Although Americans age 65 and older are generally driving safely, they might be taking medications or have a medical condition that can adversely affect their driving, says a new report from the AAA Foundation. The report, “Understanding Older Drivers: An Examination of Medical Conditions, Medication Use, and Travel Behavior,” says that in addition, as people get older, they become more fragile, and surviving or recovering from a crash can become more difficult for them. The foundation thus concludes that finding ways to keep older drivers safe, yet still mobile, is one of its top priorities.

The report seeks to understand and synthesize existing information on medical problems, medication use, and older-driver behavior. Using data from the 2009 National Household Travel Survey and the 2011 National Health and Aging Trends Survey, the report team of Sandra Rosenbloom and Robert Santos worked to establish a context for a second, forthcoming report. The second report will examine the relationship between driving behaviors and medical conditions of older drivers, along with their characteristics and attitudes. The report says:

The ultimate research goal is to assist policy analysts to construct targeted safety interventions, develop appropriate public policies, and provide comprehensive information to a range of stakeholders on how to address older driver safety problems created by the use of medications.

To reach its goal, the research team will compile and analyze studies by the Urban Institute and a five-year prospective AAA FTS cohort study conducted by Columbia University and the University of Michigan, to be launched soon.

In an article for The Car Connection, Suzanne Kane notes that the report finds that older Americans are driving more often, and later in life, than previous generations. According to the report, 68% of drivers 85 or older said they drive five or more days per week. And drivers 65 and older are driving 20% more frequently and traveling 33% more miles, Kane writes.

More than 90% of older drivers are taking prescription medications, and two-thirds of older drivers take more than one medication, the report says. However those who report using medications are more likely to limit their driving:

  •  Three-quarters of drivers 65 and older who have a medical condition report reduced daily travel;
  • ƒ Older drivers using medications drive fewer days each week;
  • ƒ Older drivers using medications avoid night driving at double the rate of those 24-64; and
  • ƒ Roughly one in five male and one in three female drivers 65 and over who take medications report avoiding night driving.

Among those older drivers who report using medications, women drivers are more likely than men drivers to restrict their driving, the report says. And women drivers 65 and over who do not have a medical condition actually drive less than those men in the same age ground who do have a medical condition, according to days traveled and miles traveled, the foundation says.

The report found that an older person’s income is also a factor in how much they drive. Men ages 80-84 with incomes over $70,000 were as likely to drive (on the day they were surveyed) as men from 70-74, and not much less than men 65-69. Women ages 65-69 with incomes under $13,000 were 62% more likely not to drive at night than women in the same age group with incomes over $70,000, the report says. “The likelihood that a male driver will avoid driving at night drops from 34 percent with an income less than $13,000 to 12 percent with an income of over $70,000,” the report says.

Kane spoke with Jake Nelson, Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy & Research for the foundation, who said older drivers need to be aware that both prescription and over-the-counter medications they take can affect their ability to drive safely. Roadwise RX and a person’s doctor can help drivers flag potential issues, he said, adding that sleep aids and opiate pain medications are especially risky for drivers.

According to SeniorDriving.AAA.com, the following medications are known to affect driving:

  • Tranquilizers
  • Narcotic pain pills
  • Sleep medicines
  • Some antidepressants
  • Cough medicines
  • Antihistamines
  • Decongestants

AAA also provides a free online Roadwise Review that drivers can take to assess their ability to drive safely. The test is 100% confidential and provides suggestions to reduce driving risks. AAA recommends that older drivers take the self-evaluation every year.

Although Colorado and 20 other states (plus the District of Columbia) have legalized the use of medical marijuana (according to ProCon.org), the report does not appear to have included that drug, by name at least, among the medications it reviewed regarding effects on driving.

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