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Driving Ability

The Natural Aging Process And Driving Ability, Physical, Perceptual, And Cognitive Function, Self-regulation

Transportation is a critical link for independent living and healthy aging; and for many people in the United States, transportation is defined as driving. Whether it is a trip to the grocery store, to volunteer, to see a doctor, to visit a friend, or to simply experience the joy of getting out, the automobile is the means for most people to remain active and healthy contributors to society.

Moreover, there is often no viable alternative to driving. The majority of older adults in the United States live in suburban and rural locations where public transportation services are either modest or nonexistent. Other transportation services, often providedby faith-based organizations, community centers, or those that are part of a regional transportation system, typically provide only basic service to doctors and food stores.

Future generations of older adults are likely to place an even greater demand and reliance on driving. For the rapidly aging baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), life has been based on and built around the mobility of the automobile. Research suggests that the majority of the baby boomers will choose to age-in-place in the suburban and rural communities that make safe walking a challenge and where distances to stores and other activities can be many miles.

Moreover, as this group ages, they are likely to travel more than their parents and grandparents. Improvements in health, greater incomes, and higher education levels lead to a greater desire to get out and participate in an active lifestyle of part-time work, volunteering, social and entertainment activities, and recreation. Sarah Bush (2001) has suggested that the changing role of women may also place additional demands on the car. Women are likely to drive more in the future due to independent lifestyles developed at a younger age, including professional careers, greater income, and more education. Lifestyle factors, housing patterns, and socioeconomic factors suggest that the next wave of retirees will want to lead an active and mobile life—which, for now, only the automobile can support.

There are a number of safety concerns about the ability of older adults to continue to drive safely in their advanced years. Transportation statistics indicate that drivers between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four have the highest fatality rate, with drivers age seventy-five and older having the second highest rates. Those arguing that older drivers present a risk to themselves and others on the road cite these data as supporting their concern that older drivers are unsafe, or that they should be tested more often than younger drivers. The statistics are not as clear as their argument would suggest, however. Researchers are uncertain about why adults over seventy-five experience high fatality rates. Many argue that older people are more likely to die in a crash, not because they are the cause of such an accident, but because they are more fragile than younger drivers and are more likely to die from an injury. The ambiguity surrounding driving ability, who can drive safely, and what an older driver is presents a continuing personal and public policy dilemma—one that is made more complex by the importance of transportation to people's lives, the uncertainty of how age affects driving skills, the lack of accepted testing technology, and the absence of viable alternatives to the car.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1