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Risk and respect: When should older drivers give up their keys?

With about 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, motorists in Pennsylvania and across the country may have noticed that the driving population is aging. Baby boomers coming of senior citizen age are still buying new cars, some of which hearken back to their early driving years. But as they become elderly there will be more discussions about when it's time to stop.

At what age should any driver be asked to hand over the keys? As we get older, our vision and hearing weaken and our reflexes slow. And as our driving capabilities falter, the risk of getting into a car accident grows. Most people and driver's license bureaus recognize this universal truth, which is why many states have requirements for drivers of a certain age who wish to renew their licenses. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have special requirements for drivers over 65. They may need to renew more often and submit to vision and road testing. Some states require drivers to renew their licenses in person. Pennsylvania and 13 other states are the exception; seniors can continue to renew a license via mail or email.

Statistics offer a picture of the risks created by older drivers. According to AAA, older drivers aren't necessarily creating more danger than the general population. They're more likely to wear their seat belts, and refrain from speeding and driving drunk. And drivers in their upper 60s have the same fatal crash rate as drivers in their 30s. It's not until about age 85 that they surpass teenage drivers in their likelihood of being involved in a fatal crash.

But because we all age differently, relying on a specific birthday isn't necessarily the best means of deciding whether someone is still a competent driver. Some minds stay sharper longer, and some bodies weaken more rapidly. The best judges of driving ability are likely family members who can pay attention to grandpa's habits from the passenger seat. Is maintaining the minimum speed limit a regular problem? Are other cars honking or otherwise expressing frustration when you're out driving together? Regular observation and the willingness to have a tough conversation with your mother, uncle or grandfather may be the best tools to ensure that your loved one doesn't end up hurting herself or someone else.

Source: Fox News, "Diminished motor skills: 'Silver tsunami' of elderly drivers prompts tough decisions," Joshua Rhett Miller, April 16, 2012

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