February 29, 2012
The Wall Street Journal
Sue Shellenbarger

After Carolyn Collins, 76, recovered from heart surgery in 2010, she started taking a weekly Zumba class to get back in shape. And as soon as her doctor cleared her to drive, she signed up with an occupational therapist for some behind-the-wheel coaching.

Many older drivers are taking preventive measures to avoid the awkward conversation with concerned family members about giving up the car keys. They are monitoring their own driving decisions, noticing their impairments and making adjustments, according to a three-year study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety of 1,437 drivers 65 and over. Researchers believe their efforts, coupled with safer vehicles, are contributing to declines in accident rates.

“Older drivers as a group have become safer,” says Anne McCartt, the institute’s senior vice president, research. Seniors 75 and older posted declines of 45% or more between 1996 and 2008 in fatal accidents per 100 million miles traveled—more than other age groups in the institute’s data.

Growing numbers of older drivers are staying behind the wheel well past the point where aging can impair vision, memory, attention and physical mobility. Ms. Collins, a Marietta, Ga., retiree, runs errands in her car several times a week, and she likes going to her favorite drive-in for a chili burger with raw onions. “I will continue to drive until I begin to make mistakes,” she says.

Drivers 85 and older still have a higher rate of deadly crashes than any other age group except teenagers. But that is partly because seniors tend to avoid freeway driving, where crash rates per mile are lower. And the institute says they are more likely than younger drivers to die in car accidents because they tend to be more frail.

“Frail” isn’t a word Carol Rhodes, 77, a retired nurse practitioner in rural Benton, Ky., would use to describe how she feels behind the wheel of her red 2001 Dodge Ram truck. Last December, she took her 17-year-old great-grandson, Dylan, on a 5,000-mile road trip from her home near Paducah to Texas, then on to Phoenix, where she has a daughter, and then back home via St. Joseph, Mo., where she has a grandson. The truck is “fabulous to drive, because you are up so high that you see everything,” Ms. Rhodes says. “And if you see a 77-year-old woman in a bright-red one-ton dually coming at you, you hit the brakes!”

Ms. Rhodes compensates for macular degeneration in her left eye by scanning her field of vision and mirrors carefully. She uses cruise control to regulate her speed (“Your foot can get a little heavy,” she says). And she always looks three ways before pulling out into the street—left, right and left again.

None of her three adult children has ever suggested that she hang up the keys, and she doesn’t expect them ever to have to do so. “I so much want to be the one to know that it’s time,” Ms. Rhodes says. If she were to start hitting ditches or missing driveways, she says, “the fear of driving would warn me” that it’s time to get off the road.

Like many seniors, 80-year-old Kitty Golisz, a retired bank teller in East Marion, N.Y., has placed her own limits on driving. She gets behind the wheel only between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and she drives for a total of only 50 to 100 miles a week. She and her husband, Leo, age 85, have stopped taking Sunday-afternoon “joy rides,” she says, and she organizes her errands so she makes only one left turn each time she goes out—minimizing what experts say is a leading cause of crashes among older drivers, who may have poor depth perception and make impulsive decisions at busy intersections.

Ms. Golisz says her husband’s health declined last year to the point where he was “making snap judgments” on the road. She was the one who told him to hang up the car keys. “It’s for our safety,” she says. “I don’t want to die with broken legs and bones. I’d rather go out like a candle in the wind.” The keys still hang over the sink, but since their talk, Mr. Golisz says he hasn’t used them. “It’s foolish to keep driving if you’re not making good judgments,” says Mr. Golisz, a retired safety officer at an animal research center.

As for her four children and her own driving, Ms. Golisz says, “I’ll decide myself.” She has macular degeneration and tracks her vision every day using a grid diagram posted on her refrigerator. She says she will stop driving when she notices her vision getting blurry.

Charles Fisher, a 79-year-old retired advertising executive living in Dublin, Ohio, says his adult daughter sometimes presses him to take driver-safety courses but he doesn’t feel the need. He is fit, alert and confident of his abilities. A father of four, Mr. Fisher says he and his wife, Lee, used to drive thousands of miles coast to coast for vacations or family visits. But Ms. Fisher, 73, no longer drives, and Mr. Fisher has cut his mileage to about 200 miles a week. He has his vision checked annually; two weeks ago his doctor upgraded his driving glasses. To avoid night driving, the couples goes to movie matinees and dines out before dark. His mantra is, “Remember you’re not the only fool on the road,” he says. “You have to set out on every trip with the realization that this could be the time you’re really challenged with some terrible situation.”

Safe-driving courses for older drivers are available through AARP and AAA. Many states require them, and most mandate insurance-premium discounts for seniors who take them. A free car-assessment program, called CarFit, co-sponsored by AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association, is available in most states to help seniors adjust or modify their vehicles to be safer. And more occupational therapists are offering skills assessments and coaching to help older drivers compensate for impairments.

Lyn Morgan, 65, a retired health-care executive in Avon, Colo., dislikes flying. Before making the 5,000-mile drive to Connecticut and back with his wife, Joanne, in 2009, Mr. Morgan bought an $89 cognitive driver-training computer program, DriveSharp, to help him pay attention to multiple moving objects and see more of the road. He took it three times, posting big score increases. The cognitive workout “tuned me up” as a driver, Mr. Morgan says. “It caused me to be more aware.”