When is it time to decide to hang up the car keys?

Eyesight, hearing and mobility are all factors that can become issues for senior drivers.  |  Getty Images

Since 2010, senior drivers, that is folks age 65 and older, have been having the most automobile collisions in Canada. They are driving into more collisions than any other age group.

No one knows exactly why this is happening. It was not always this way. From 2000 to 2007, seniors ranked third, fourth or fifth on the list.

Some analysts say that as baby boomers hit their golden years in the coming decades, deaths behind the wheel could spike.

If that isn’t enough, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), seniors are more likely to suffer injuries in a collision of any severity at any speed, and more likely than any other age group to die from those injuries.

The risk of post-accident medical complications is also higher for seniors and recovery times tend to be longer.

Aging bones break more readily and heal more slowly. Also, pre-existing conditions like diabetes or heart disease can complicate a post-accident recovery.

Factors that can become issues for senior drivers include eyesight, hearing and mobility.

Changes in eyes affect night vision

By age 60 we need three times as much light to see as we do at age 20. Pupils get smaller with age and they don’t dilate as much in the dark. That makes it harder to see things, such as pedestrians and road signs and harder to manage glare.

Our field of view or peripheral vision changes as we age too. We use peripheral vision to see what’s going on beside us. By the time we’re 75 our peripheral vision is showing us two-thirds less than it did when we were 20. In other words, our field of view has shrunk to one-third of its original size. We might not be able to see everything around our vehicle that might be a risk. These conditions are apart from age-related eye problems such as cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration.

Hearing loss can also affect driving ability. The Canadian Hearing Society estimates as much as 60 percent of seniors have age-related hearing loss that can affect ability to respond to something like a siren.

Age-related illnesses, such as arthritis, can diminish mobility and dexterity. It’s not as easy to shoulder check or even maintain control of the steering wheel and braking response times may be slowed.

The good news is that these conditions can be managed, said Raynald Marchand, general manager of programs at the Canada Safety Council.

“See your optometrist regularly, yearly after age 60. Position mirrors properly, do not wear coloured lenses. Wear proper sunglasses. Keep headlights properly cleaned. Limit night driving.”

Hearing loss is not such a big issue as loss of vision but it could cause difficulty in hearing horns and sirens. Marchand suggested adjusting fans and air conditioning to the lowest tolerable limit and limiting radio use.

Seniors should also remember that newer hearing aids are effective and almost invisible. And think about taking a class such as 55 Alive and CarFit.

Marchand said 55 Alive is a one-day discussion group-workshop designed to help seniors assess where they are in their driving.

An instructor leads a discussion on the rules of the road that may have changed since they started driving. Vision, medication and exercises to do shoulder checks are also included.

“The whole thing is to help mature drivers to retain their driving privileges as long as they are (safely) able to,” he said.

Christine Niemczyk, the director of communications with the Canadian Automobile Association in Saskatchewan, described CAA’s affiliation with CarFit, an educational program that provides a quick, comprehensive assessment of the “fit” between a vehicle and its driver.

CarFit is new to Saskatchewan but in operation across the country. It’s a partnership with CAA and the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists. The website is at caask.ca/carfit.

“The purpose of the program is not to evaluate your driving skills or look at your driver’s licence,” said Niemczyk, “It tests the driver through a 20-minute, 12-point checklist, which CAA does with trained technicians from the CarFit program, to talk about things like, did you wear your seatbelt to drive here? What shoes are you wearing?”

Are they familiar with their vehicle? Are they adjusting mirrors between drivers?

“We want to start a conversation on how can we help you as a mature driver to feel safe and comfortable in your vehicle as you’re driving,” she said.

Marchand and Niemczyk agree that some seniors might have to make adjustments, but it may not necessarily mean that they have to stopping driving completely. It could mean no more driving at night and limiting daytime driving to short distances

Also, drivers at any age may consider taking a refresher course. Some of the 55 Alive sponsors are connected with a driving school or have a reference to a driving school instructor.

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