Study shows older drivers can unlearn bad habits

Rachel Hartman
Worried about Grandma’s driving skills? It may not be a mind matter; she may simply be stuck in a few behind-the-wheel ruts.
Older drivers can pick up unsafe driving habits -- such as taking numerous precautions to avoid hitting something in front of their vehicles -- that they fail to properly scan at intersections, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The findings of their two studies, published in the February 2012 edition of Current Directions in Psychological Science, suggest that with a little training, those habits can easily be reversed. The result? Older, safer drivers who reduce their risk of crashing.
Reversing bad habits 
In the first study, drivers over age 70 were compared with drivers between 25 and 55. Both groups navigated a real vehicle through a simulated world projected on displays outside the car. All drivers had to approach three intersections and make a turn. During the test, older drivers tended to check the danger zone – areas where a possible threat could be lurking – at these crossings less often and for less time than the younger drivers.
In the second study, researchers tested the effects of a training program on three groups of randomly selected older drivers. All drivers were videotaped while driving their vehicles from home to destinations they chose. One group simply drove to the location; a second group received a lecture about the dangers at intersections and the correct way to scan when making a turn. The third group, in addition to the lecture, watched video replays of their driving and received feedback. They also practiced scanning properly and making a turn on a driving simulator. The first and second groups, during follow-up testing, had no changes in their driving habits. The third group, however, drove as well as younger experienced drivers. Twelve months later, the effects from the training remained the same. 
Driver training
For drivers in otherwise good health, reversing certain driving habits may be a matter of brushing up on driving techniques and current laws.
“Older drivers may be able to improve their driving skills and knowledge through a driver retraining program,” says David W. Eby, head of behavioral sciences at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. “Much has changed in the driving environment – both in the roadway and vehicle – since most older adults were first licensed.”
If you’re concerned about an older driver’s habits, try getting in the car with the driver, says Jodi Olshevski, gerontologist at The Hartford, an auto insurer. Check for warning signs such as difficulty turning to see when backing up, hitting curbs and exhibiting irritation when driving. If you notice an increase in these over time, consider talking to the driver or getting a second opinion from a doctor.
A physician may refer an older driver to a driver rehabilitation specialist, who can assess the motorist’s driving skills. Based on the results of the evaluation, the specialist may recommend adding equipment such as extra cushions or pedal extenders to the car. The driver also may be advised to undergo further training, or to limit some or all driving.
Insurance and older drivers
Just as driving habits affect safety on the road, they also play a role when it comes to auto insurance. Here are three insurance factors that older drivers should take note of:
  1. Auto insurance rates fluctuate with age. Mature drivers tend to stay safe on the road. In fact, some insurance companies offer discounts to drivers between 50 and 70, according to the Insurance Information Institute. However, some companies tend to start increasing rates once you hit 70, says Angie LaPlant, a spokeswoman for AAA. The increase stems from a rise in crash statistics: Per mile driven, older drivers have higher rates of fatal crashes than any other age group except those between 16 and 24. Traffic injuries are the second leading cause of death – after falls – among 75- to 84-year-olds, according to the American Medical Association.
  2. Driving courses may lead to discounts. Many states require insurers to offer discounts to those who complete a state-approved driver improvement course, either in the classroom or online. (Check the participation in your area on AARP’s website.) AAA offers a Senior Defensive Driving Program geared toward drivers 55 and older. Completion of the course can result in auto premium reductions for up to three years. Two other classes to try: the AARP Driver Safety Course and the AAA Online Mature Driver Improvement Course.
  3. Additional discounts may be available. Some insurance companies, such as The Hartford, offer discounts to AARP members. Other deductions that may apply to seniors: driving a small number of miles each year, being a longtime customer, maintaining a solid credit record and having zero accidents within three years.

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