Risks rise for older drivers

(Photo by Flickr-user Davidsledge)

Bob Balkam's been doing this for 74 years: driving a car. But at age 90, he has made a momentous decision.

“I've decided the time has come to give it up, and I'm selling the car,” Blakam said.

There was no big accident, he says, but some close calls like backing into a parked motorcycle.

"I couldn't turn my head around to the back far enough to see the motorcycle,” he said.

As the population ages, so do America’s drivers. Like Balkam, many weigh the freedom and mobility that driving offers with the increased likelihood for accidents of older drivers.

Those decisions have impacts for the rest of road users as well: Older drivers often can't see as well at night or hit the brake pedal fast enough or judge oncoming traffic when turning left.

"If an older adult has a lot of deficits in these areas, studies do show that they are five times more likely to be involved in an accident,” said Lisa Boorom, a senior wellness coordinator.

Older drivers face a much higher risk of injuring or killing themselves or other road users in crashes than drivers younger than 65, a 2008 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found. That risk increases with age, with drivers 85 and over having the highest risk of their own death, according to the study.

Many older drivers try to stay safe by driving less frequently, sticking to familiar roads or avoiding driving at nighttime. Still, unexpected events during even a short drive demand quick reactions.

Boorom says feedback is important to gauge whether older drivers are still fit for the road. She evaluates seniors at the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield.

“Have a family member or a friend drive with you and just watch you drive,” she advises.

Balkam has eight children who look after him. His son Steve Balkam says give up driving will actually save his father money.

"If you drive as little as he does-- and a lot of older folks do -- it's cheaper, to not have the car, not to repair it,...the insurance,” he said.

Should you stop driving? Take our quiz to find out.

The AARP senior advocacy group advises family members and friends to look for 10 warning signs that indicate an older person is struggling with driving, including close calls or near-crashes and slow responses to unexpected situations. The trouble Balkam had turning around to see the motorcycle is on the list as well.

Both the AARP and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offer resources online for families who wonder how to approach the subject. Self-tests can help show an older driver that his or her skills have declined. The NHTSA’s guide also encourages family members to reach out to doctors and other community members to see if they think someone should turn in their car keys.

Balkam, for one, has arranged with Barwood Cab's "silver ride" service to have a driver if he needs one. In the D.C. area, the non-profilt membership community groups Capitol Hill Village pool resources to support seniors.

"For one thing, I'm going to do some more walking," he said, adding that giving up the keys does not have to be a loss of independence.

“I'd love to get the word out to more people that it's not a threat--it is an opportunity,” Balkam said.

Additional resources:

10 warning signs to stop driving

The book "How to Live Well Without Owning a Car" by Chris Balish offers additional tips for non-drivers.

Resources on talking to senior drivers from the AARP