As head of Hall County’s area agency on aging, Pat Freeman sees the issues that affect elderly drivers.
One is a reluctance to give up driving after reaching an age when motor skills have diminished. Another is the effects prescription medications can have on the elderly behind the wheel.
“That’s always an issue,” said Freeman, executive director of Legacy Link.
“Some will limit their time behind the wheel,” she said of those who take medications that affect driving ability. “Some will just drive anyway if they want to get somewhere, and that’s true of regardless of age.”
A report released this month by AAA Auto Club says prescription medications pose a threat to traffic safety, with only 28 percent of seniors 55 or older surveyed in a limited study aware of the potential impact those drugs can have on their driving.
“It is imperative that we do a better job of educating drivers of known risks,” said Yoli Buss, the group’s director of driver improvement.
Prescription medications typically carry stickers warning drivers of side effects, but “I’m not sure they always read them,” Freeman said. “I think that’s really the physician’s role, to talk about what the dangers or side effects could be.”
The study concluded that too often, doctors weren’t adequately informing their patients of a medication’s effects on driving ability.
Leonard Poon, director of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology, said there can be wide variations in the level of individual attention physicians and pharmacists give their patients.
“Depending on who you’re getting your prescriptions from, some physicians take their responsibility very seriously and talk about the potential interactions and side effects,” Poon said. “Other physicians may come in and they have seven minutes to talk with you.”
The study surveyed drivers ages 56 to 93 and found that awareness of potential side effects from drugs decreased with age.
The survey was conducted by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and questioned 630 Alabama adults with an average age of 70.4 years about their knowledge regarding both prescription and over-the-counter medication use and driving.
Poon, an expert in aging, cautioned against comparing “apples with oranges,” in the group’s study, noting that 56-year-olds “are very different from 93-year-olds.”
“When you combine all that data and make a generalization, you really have to take the conclusions with a grain of salt,” Poon said.
Still, the issue of seniors on the road is a topic of great debate and some controversy, experts say.
“Certain individuals do not want to give up their independence,” Poon said. “But there are a lot of individual differences among people. There’s some 20-year-olds who shouldn’t be driving, and there are 100-year-olds who can drive very safely. The functional capacity of an individual should be the criteria to make that determination.”
Freeman said families should look to doctors for guidance and consider them partners in making driving decisions. Tests are available and the AARP offers safe driving courses for seniors.
Still, some seniors find it hard to hang up the car keys.
“It’s a very difficult thing,” Freeman said. “This country is not set up to make it easy for the elderly to have mobility.”