- - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The nation’s baby boomers, now entering into their golden years in record numbers, are not giving up the car keys without a fight.

As the leading edge of the massive boomer generation turned 65 in 2011, a study suggests that America’s roads will be facing a “silver tsunami” of older drivers determined to hold on to to their driver’s licenses even as their reflexes slow and eyesight dims.

A survey of more than 500 older drivers released Tuesday by AAA finds that senior citizens worry about their driving abilities but insist that having a car is a necessary part of their lives. Nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said being forced to surrender their license would pose a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem.

In some ways, healthy older drivers are, on average, among the safest on the road, more likely to buckle up, observe speed limits and avoid drinking and driving. But AAA also notes that older drivers are more likely to be killed or seriously injured in a crash because of their greater frailty.

Jake Nelson, AAA director for traffic safety advocacy, said the study shows that while some may assume that people 65 and older don’t think about the reduced reaction time and other challenges that come with age, they are aware of their diminished skills and are dealing with the challenges.

The study shows that 4 of 5 drivers 65 and older say they avoid certain driving conditions - half avoid driving at night, and 61 percent don’t drive in bad weather.

Even in retirement, men take more risks than women. For example, 49 percent of women will not drive in heavy traffic, while only 34 percent of older men avoid congested road conditions.

Some 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, and by 2020, according to AAA President Robert Darbelnet, it is estimated that 1 in 6 drivers on American roads will be 65 or older.

The study polled 512 people 65 and older, and it contains a statistical margin of error of 4.9 percentage points. Of those polled, almost one-fifth no longer drive.

If those who do drive were to suddenly become unable to get behind the wheel, 88 percent said the loss of mobility and independence would pose at least some hardship. Some 39 percent said not driving would be a “very serious problem.”

But with all the precautions that older drivers take to avoid darkness and inclement weather, the most dangerous time to drive for seniors is in the middle of the day. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics for 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, 81 percent of fatalities involving older drivers occurred during the daytime and 71 percent occurred midweek.

Mr. Nelson said the AAA survey was designed to highlight the problem of reduced mobility and to encourage older people to start planning to avoid abrupt shifts in lifestyle.

Whether a police officer takes away the keys or a medical diagnosis renders them carless, Mr. Nelson said, the loss of mobility often comes suddenly.

“A lot of people have the experience of, ‘Today I’m driving, tomorrow I’m not,’ ” he said.

Some form of transportation is a necessity as many boomers live too far away to walk to buy groceries, visit the doctor or see friends.

“These are some of the same things you should think about at the same time as financial retirement,” Mr. Nelson said.

Amy Levner, who specializes in home and family issues at AARP, the nation’s largest retiree advocacy group, said that a driver’s license is a mark of independence, which is why many seniors try to keep driving for as long as physically possible.

When they do hang up the keys, public transportation is often not an option. Bus and subway lines are geared toward commuters, not seniors, and life in the suburbs has always centered around having a car.

Circulator buses, the kinds that come every 10 minutes or so, are geared more for a senior ridership, Ms. Levner said. “Something that’s very regular like that” is good, she said.

Mr. Nelson and Ms. Levner said their organizations provide programs to assist older drivers. AARP provides an assessment to determine how fit drivers are for the roads and a program advising children how to talk with their parents about aging and driving.

AAA has programs to maximize the time older people spend on the road traveling safely. For example, AAA runs “CarFit,” a program that will customize cars to adjust to the needs of older drivers.

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