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Keeping Older Drivers Safe Behind the Wheel

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(ARA) - It could be your parent or grandparent, it could be anyone’s. Picture this -- it’s a sunny afternoon when an 87-year-old woman gets in her car to visit her grandchildren. As she turns at the end of her street, she doesn’t realize that the glare on her window and stiffness in her neck will prevent her from seeing an oncoming car. While her grandchildren await her arrival, she lies in the hospital.

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among 65 to 74-year-olds and the second leading cause (after falls) among 75 to 84-year-olds, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. As the baby boomer generation gains senior status, the threat of serious injury for older drivers becomes a growing public health concern.

By the year 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts the number of older Americans will double to 70 million. The dramatic increase in population brings to the forefront the need to safeguard our seniors on the road. The American Medical Association (AMA) thinks physicians can help.

Dr. John Armstrong, a member of the AMA Board of Trustees, says the time to help our older drivers is now. “There is already a problem with older drivers being in a disproportionate number of accidents, and with the baby boomers getting older, the problem will likely get worse,” he says.

For many older individuals, the ability to drive signifies independence -- they can go where they want, when they want. Yet certain essential skills required for driving, such as vision, cognition and motor functions, are commonly impaired as we grow older. As these weaken, older drivers become more vulnerable to vehicle accidents in complicated situations that require good awareness, concentration and quick response.

The AMA, in partnership with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has compiled a 226-page guide used to educate physicians about helping older drivers’ remain safely behind the wheel. “The Physician’s Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers” provides physicians with the practical tools needed for the office-based assessment of an older driver. The guide is also available online.

The guide is the collaborative effort of the AMA’s Older Drivers Project (ODP) and 40 other contributing organizations, including the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the National Stroke Association, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. The goal of the ODP, created in January 2002, is to generate awareness concerning the older driving health issue, and to encourage physicians to analyze older patients who may have lost the ability to safely drive.

A primary focus of the guide is the physician’s ability to help older drivers seek treatment and rehabilitation that will keep them driving safely. Much impairment suffered by older drivers can be corrected. For example, vision problems may be easily addressed by an opthamologist. A physician may recommend stretching and muscle strengthening exercises to help correct stiffness and range of motion problems. In addition, if a patient needs further help to remain behind the wheel, he/she may be referred to a driver rehabilitation specialist.

“The AMA is being proactive by providing tools to physicians to prevent unnecessary accidents and focus on patient rehabilitation,” says Dr. Armstrong. “The purpose of the AMA’s older drivers program is not to remove older drivers from the road, but to put safe ones in the driver’s seat.”

Further information offered in the guide includes a reference table of medical conditions and medications that may impair essential driving-related skills; cautionary safety handouts for patients and their family members; and a discussion of the legal and ethical concerns accompanying a physician’s referral in the case of an unsafe driver. State by state charts on licensing and individual state’s rules about reporting an unsafe driver to their driver licensing authority are also included.

The electronic version of the guide is available at www.ama-assn.org/go/olderdrivers. Information on obtaining a print copy can be found on the AMA Web site upon release this fall.

Courtesy of ARA Content

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Courtesy of ARA Content


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