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When should mom give up the car keys?

"Some people reach 85 in very good physical and mental condition, while others have extensive cognitive and physical conditions by the age of 60," says Rebecca Dillard. "So a blanket approach to driving or not driving for seniors is not good."

When Rebecca Dillard arrived for a presentation on safe driving at a local senior center, she faced a tough crowd.

“Are you here to take away my license?” came the first question from the audience.

Dillard, assistant director of programs for the Emory Center for Health in Aging, had some explaining to do. No, she wasn’t there to strip anyone of a driver’s license. What she was there to do was to raise awareness in this group of older adults about decisions they all eventually will face about driving.

If and when an older person should stop driving, is a loaded question. Just as teens are excited to get their hands on the car keys for the first time, seniors are equally reluctant to let go of those keys—and for legitimate reasons. For most people in the United States, especially those who live in areas that lack public transportation, the car represents independence. It is a way for seniors to get to the volunteer job, church, the doctor, or the house of a friend. Furthermore, some studies have shown that retiring from driving in general causes decreased overall health and increased frailty.

Still, some facts can’t be ignored. With the U.S. population rapidly graying, one in five drivers will be older than 65 by 2030. With age comes a natural decline in motor, visual, and cognitive skills—explaining in part why seniors are involved in a disproportionate rate of motor vehicle crashes compared with other groups. In Georgia, the second leading cause of unintentional related injury deaths for those over the age of 65 is motor vehicle accidents. Conservative estimates put the annual costs of these accidents at more than $62 million, which doesn’t account for associated costs, such as time lost from work or related expenses such as rehabilitation, home health, or long-term care.

Those reasons are why the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety has funded an Older Driver Safety Program. Managed by the Office of Injury Prevention in the Georgia Department of Public Health, it brings together close to 60 key stakeholders. Emory’s Center for Health in Aging is an active member of the program and hosts the monthly meeting of the driving task force at its headquarters on Emory’s Wesley Woods campus. A longtime member of the task force, Emory gerontologist Herb Karp, now in his 90s, still attends most meetings.

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