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Older Drivers Benefit From Brushing Up on Skills

Happy 65th birthday, baby boomers. The first wave of the baby-boom generation turned 65 last year, which means that older drivers now account for nearly 20 percent of American motorists.

An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study of crashes found that 58 percent of drivers 80 and older failed to yield at intersections, while the number for drivers 70-79 was 37 percent. But Charles Gerstenmaier, 87, a longtime resident of Darien, isn't bothered by statistics. "I have always been a safe driver," he says unequivocally, stating his current approach to driving is unchanged from his younger days on the road.

According to Tom Maloney, director of the Greenwich Health Department's Office of Special Clinical Services, "Many older drivers recognize their driving skills and abilities begin to diminish as they get older, particularly after age 70." However, he adds that age is not the sole predictor of driving ability and safety. Research, he says, shows evidence that drivers can also experience a declines in ability due to medical conditions. But any declines can signal a greater crash risk potential.

Programs such as driver improvement classes offered by AARP help seniors re-hone their driving skills. Gerstenmaier says he attends these "brush-up" sessions every three years. They remind drivers that sliding through a stop sign-marked intersection is not the same as coming to a full stop, or that not using directional signals is a potentially dangerous lapse in judgment. Seniors are also advised not to drive at night and to avoid driving on highly congested roads and highways. And Maloney adds that older drivers should consider driving only in fair weather and on familiar routes.

And just as fledgling drivers are assessed on their driving fitness, so, says Mahoney, should seniors be evaluated. "If an assessment identifies impairments," he says, "plans can be executed to address them." Impairments might be correctable, he adds, and include modifying eyeglasses and/or medications – or even stretching exercises to enhance a driver's flexibility.

He also recommends that family members and concerned friends have a conversation with the older driver in question about his or her driving abilities.

Gerstenmaier's automotive routine is the backbone of his spotless driving record. He has, he says, a definite set of rules. "I always take that second look and I always check my blind spot." He's been driving for 70 years and states he's never received a ticket. "I will know when it's time to hang up my keys," he says.

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