Updated 11 June 2013

Doctors should steer conversation to older drivers

If they start talking at 65, patients will have years to ponder alternatives to driving, researcher says.


With 10 000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, the number of elderly drivers on US roads is accelerating rapidly, researchers say.

But doctors and other health care providers often wait too long before they talk to seniors about giving up driving, even though many elderly patients are ready to discuss the issue much sooner, according to a new study.

"These conversations often don't happen until clinicians see a 'red flag,' which could mean an accident or some physical problem that makes driving more difficult for the elderly," study lead author Dr Marian Betz, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said in a university news release. "But what's interesting is that most elderly drivers we spoke with said they were open to having earlier discussions."

The study involved focus groups and interviews with 33 drivers older than 65 and eight health care providers, including doctors, nurses and physician assistants. Health care providers often raised the subject of driving before elderly patients did, but tended to wait for problems to arise before doing so. Health care providers also said these conversations were usually "unpleasant."

Regular questioning

In general, elderly drivers said they were open to these discussions and generally regarded their health care providers as "fair minded." Most of them, however, said they didn't believe their health care providers were aware of their driving ability or status, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

"Driving is linked to independence, and asking for someone's keys is very emotional," said Betz, who noted that previous studies "have shown that most people outlive their ability to drive safely by more than six years."

Health care providers should begin having driving-related conversations with elderly patients when they are about 65 years old, she said. This gives them years to think about it before having to make a decision about giving up driving.

"A primary theme that emerged from this study was the overall importance of improved communication about driving safety," the researchers said. Clinicians and drivers supported the idea of regular questioning about driving as a way to make it an easier topic, they said.

"It's not just about taking the keys, it's about making plans," Betz said. "Drivers in our studies reported needing help in preparing for that transition, including learning about transportation alternatives."

More information

The US National Institute on Aging has more about older drivers.

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