Doug Crocker knows a thing or two about driving. The 74-year-old former Hartford police officer and his wife have navigated the continental U.S. three times in their motor home.
Even experienced drivers feel the effects of aging when behind the wheel. “It’s harder to turn around now to look for blind spots,” he said. “Backing up is a real issue too,” especially when he drives the Jeep they tow along for in-town use.
Age-related decline in mobility, flexibility and reaction time can seriously impact driving and safety. Some simple, targeted exercises may ease normal age-related physical changes and help keep Crocker – and many of the 700,000 older Connecticut drivers — safely on the road.
A study by The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence and the M.I.T. Age Lab looked at the effects of exercise on older drivers’ strength, flexibility, coordination and range of motion. Participants used a specially designed exercise program and an X-Box. Drivers who exercised for 15-20 minutes daily reported greater ease in turning their heads to look in blind spots when changing lanes or backing up, compared with a similar group that did not exercise.
The exercise group could also rotate their bodies easily to scan the road when making right hand turns compared with non-exercisers. “When you think about the risks in intersections, that’s a very positive outcome,” said Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist and executive director of The Hartford Center, part of The Hartford Insurance Company. The group was also able to get in and out of their cars more quickly, which translates to improved flexibility, something “so essential to be able to respond to all of the various actions that are required for driving,” she said.
The study was important in establishing a connection between exercise and a specific fitness program and driving ability, added Olshevski.
“We wanted to look at the impact of physical fitness on driving skills of older drivers before they have really significant health issues,” she said.
There were over 2.4 million licensed drivers in Connecticut in 2012, according to the latest figures available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicle data show that one in five drivers is age 65 or older. In Connecticut, 50 of the 332 fatal traffic crashes involved older drivers in 2012, according to the NHTSA.
Frank Pagerino, AARP’s State Coordinator for Driver Safety, said, “Most older driver don’t complain about their physical ailments, but when we start talking about it, they admit they can’t walk, or it’shard to bend down, or turn their necks.’’ That affects their ability to conduct maneuvers like lane changes, which require turning the torso and neck to make sure there’s no oncoming traffic, he said. AARP is a partner with The Hartford Insurance Company, offering car insurance to mature drivers.
Older adults have a higher crash rate per mile driven and are frailer. So when they crash, their chances of injury or death is greater compared with a younger driver in that same crash, according to Yale doctoral student Nancy Knechel.
Knechel conducted a separate analysis on the effects of various interventions on improving skills of older drivers. She found that exercise was the best approach to maintaining driving ability in older adults compared with other activities like cognitive training.
Driving is more than getting from point A to B, she said. Seniors who don’t drive have less social interaction, more depression, and worse overall health. “Even though it seems like a quick Band-Aid to take them off the road, it probably creates bigger problems,” Knechel said.
In a 2013 national telephone survey of 1,107 drivers age 50 and older, turning their heads to look at blind spots, getting in and out of a vehicle, and reaching and adjusting the seat belt ranked as the top three physical challenges.
“The real question is what can people do to try to extend their ability to stay safe on the road as long as possible. That’s why we wanted to look at the role of exercise as an empowerment model, rather than a reactive ‘oh you’ve got to get off of the road’ model,” Olshevski said.
Many newer cars have built-in technology that addresses age-related challenges, like blind spot warnings, light-sensitive headlights and backup cameras. Fifty-one percent of consumers surveyed by the Hartford Center said they would feel safer with at least one of these technologies in their car.
AARP’s Pagerino cautioned that technology is also a distraction, because “you’re taking your eyes off the road to look at a screen and your concentration gets blurred. I’m a bit leery, but that’s what’s coming down the pike.”