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Keys hanging on a door.

Hanging up the keys

U researchers study the behaviors of older drivers

By Laine Bergeson

From eNews, May 3, 2007

For most Americans, driving equals autonomy. Getting to the grocery store, book club, or a family member's house, often requires an automobile. The car has rooted itself in American life as a tool for defining what we do and, by extension, how we perceive ourselves.

Which makes aging so potentially upending. While the years bring experience, they also can chip away visual acuity, hearing, muscle tone, and response time--skills vital for driving. When an individual or his or her loved ones senses that it might be time to retire from driving, the decision can feel like a blow to his or her very identity.

"The decision to stop driving is a real issue, and we need a more realistic way of looking at it," says Jim Reinardy, a gerontology expert who is director of graduate studies and interim director of the School of Social Work. "Driving cannot simply be experienced as something one gives up. It has to be seen as a change to a different alternative."

It's important for the senior and members of his or her support system to weigh the options. "When driving has to stop, you need to have a transportation plan or a whole life plan in place. Don't talk about giving up driving, talk about what driving led you to," says Reinardy, then arrange alternatives for getting there. Some people choose to live on bus routes. Others create intentional communities where members can still help out with driving duties. Some families devise schedules for helping meet an older person's transportation needs.

The question arises, then: How does one gauge when it's appropriate to retire from driving? While different aspects of aging will affect individuals to varying degrees, some changes are universal, says Curtis Hammond, a researcher in the School of Kinesiology. "As you age, you stiffen," says Hammond. "And you don't crane your head as you probably should. Turning around to spot a vehicle can be especially important if one's eyesight is deteriorating--another age-related concern."

In one of Hammond's studies of braking behaviors, researchers evaluated younger and older drivers using a full-sized car and a virtual environment. When the car that test subjects were following stopped at a prescribed distance, younger drivers tended to react more quickly but brake harder due to closer following distance. Older drivers did just the opposite; they had slower reaction time but needed less pressure to stop in time.

Hammond emphasizes, however, that age-related physical concerns are only half of the issue. More pressingly, he says, the system is broken.

"The traffic system is not designed with a wide range of tolerance for even healthy drivers," says Hammond, who conducted his research with principal investigator and U professor Michael Wade from kinesiology. "The road system [leaves] a very narrow band of what you can get away with. There are too many signs and merges that are too quick, too tight turns on off-ramps," he continues. "The traffic system as it now stands, taxes [even] a young, spry mind. We are already pushed to the limits."

Other issues that may affect older drivers include a decreased ability to track several moving objects at once, and spotting details, such as on a sign.

The American Association of Retired People offers a self-test for some of these abilities. Testing alone isn't enough to make the decision, says Hammond; the person facing the choice needs to be proactive. "Even if we put self-tests out there, the older person needs to make that decision first," he says. "If they can tell three years in advance that their vision is going down, they can test themselves and plan for the future. If one plans ahead, the decision doesn't have to be dramatic."

Reinardy suggests drawing up a contract well in advance that sets parameters so everyone can plan for the eventual decision to hang up the keys. He also emphasizes flexibility and a proactive approach. "The savvy older person, or their adult children, will think of alternatives as they age," he says. "Giving up driving is a fundamental and difficult change; it takes a long time. Treat this as a real decision, not a loss. With a lot of support, there are a lot of alternatives."