Seniors: Safe to Drive?

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According to the insurance industry, seniors are the second most dangerous group of drivers after teenagers. And despite this weeks tragedy in Santa Monica, California, experts say older drivers usually do the most harm to themselves and their cars with low speed collisions.

In a special assignment, KKTV 11 News reporter Cris Ornelas has important information about seniors behind the wheel.

Is there an age when people are simply too old to drive? We asked the experts about it, and got tips on how to cope with this complex issue.

On Wednesday, 86-year-old Russell Weller drove through a Farmers Market in California, killing nine people and injuring dozens of others. Investigators say Weller's age is a contributing factor to his reckless driving.

More than 25 million Americans are over age 70. And 18.5 million of them are licensed drivers---drivers who may not have the ability to drive safely. "The rate of cognitive impairment increases significantly with age to the point that over age 85, between a third and a half of older adults have fairly significant cognitive impairment," says Sara Qualls, a professor at CU-Colorado Springs who specializes in the issues of aging.

She says declining brain function can make it tough for an older driver to make fast decisions in traffic. "Driving issues for most older adults isn't a matter of getting the foot to the pedal. It's a matter of the brain signaling the foot quickly enough when there is problems."

Qualls adds that most older drivers are aware of their deteriorating skills. "Many older people make a decision for themselves to change their driving pattern. They quit driving at night voluntarily or they take back roads."

So if driving gets harder with age, does that mean there is an age when people shouldn't drive anymore? Qualls says no. And Karen Richardson at Master Drive in Colorado Springs agrees. "I've seen excellent drivers at age 90 and poor drivers at age 65."

Richardson heads the Senior Refresher course at Master Drive. She says seniors who remain active are usually the ones who continue to be good drivers. And the experts say, you're never too old to refresh your driving skills.

We talked with some seniors who are taking the course. Most come for the discount on their auto insurance they get for completing the class.

"I'm a big fan of the course, it's well done." Doug Fetsch talks about the virtues of safe driving. And couples like Dick and Betty McMahon agree. They have a combined 120 years of driving experience, and they believe they are still good drivers. But they know the time will come for them to put the car keys away for good. "For me, it will be quite difficult because I love to drive. I've driven all my life," says Dick. "I have no fear that when I have to give it up that I will have the ability to say that I cannot drive any longer---that I feel uncomfortable," says Betty.

So how do you know when it's time to quit? Sara Qualls says when the driver has trouble performing complex cognitive tasks, like balancing a checkbook, then it's probably time to stop driving.

For more information on the topic of Seniors and Driving:

  • Alzheimer's Association Statement on Driving and Dementia

  • AARP Driver Safety Program or call 1-888-227-7669

  • Master Drive Senior's Program or call 719-260-0999

  • Cognitive Testing for Aging Adults at CU-Colorado Springs 719-471-4884