Take a Road Test of Your Driving Skills

Make sure you're fit to drive, and that your car is fit to meet your needs as well.

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May is Older Americans Month. Each year, the U.S. Administration on Aging picks an apple-pie theme for the month. This year's theme: “Living Today for a Better Tomorrow.” Hard to argue with that.

My theme is a bit more specific: Make sure your driving skills are still solid. Safe driving is key to the independence of millions of older Americans, whose presence on the nation's roads is growing. By 2030, according to U.S. Census Bureau data cited by AAA, one in four drivers will be age 65 or older. The good news is that elderly driving habits, coupled with sustained improvements in vehicle safety, have made many senior drivers the poster children for safe driving. The unavoidable reality, however, is that driving skills deteriorate as we age, and the decision to give up driving becomes a stressful milestone for many seniors and their adult children.

[See Why Roads Are Becoming a Friendlier Place for Older Drivers.]

AAA, in particular, does a commendable job of providing safe driving tips and interactive tools for older drivers. Here are three:

Roadwise Review is an interactive CD that helps seniors test their fitness as drivers. Driving skills are a sensitive topic -- older drivers don't want to give up their keys and, often, don't want family members or caregivers to have any reasons to take them away. Roadwise Review can be taken privately, although it's easiest if there is a helper available. Its eight-step test covers things like leg strength, visual acuity, reaction time and memory. After the results are calculated on the computer screen, along with comments about your driving skills, they are erased from the program once it's been closed. The disk is free at some AAA locations or may cost up to $15. Check your local AAA.

CarFit is a hands-on program that can be set up through an events locator. The American Society on Aging developed it with input from several organizations. You can take your vehicle to a CarFit event and go through a number of steps to make sure that your car's seat, mirror, head restraint and related safety features are compatible with your physical characteristics, including any health-related factors that might affect your driving. Clear lines of sight, proper access to pedals, comfortable seating and the right seat belt configuration are among key variables for the "fit" between car and driver. Simple adjustments can fix many fit problems, and there is a range of adaptive devices to resolve tougher issues.

Smart Features for Mature Drivers. The University of Florida's National Older Driver Research and Training Center has worked with AAA to develop a vehicle-by-vehicle list of features that can be particularly useful for older drivers; specific features are explained here. Better yet, there's a brochure that lists major vehicle brands and models and provides a comparative matrix of their older-driver features.