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Take steps to stay in the driver's seat longer

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Published May 22

BY FRED W. WRIGHT JR.

Times Correspondent

Sometimes, it's the simplest of tasks that wear us out.

The challenge can be as simple as turning the steering wheel on our car or comfortably turning our head left and right to look for oncoming traffic.

According to a new study by researchers at Columbia University, commissioned by AAA — The Auto Club Group, the two principal reasons older drivers give up their car keys are fatigue and declining "physical functioning."

And the potential consequences of giving up one's car keys go beyond diminished mobility.

"Older adults who give up the keys are more likely to suffer from depression than those who remain behind the wheel," said AAA — The Auto Club Group spokesman Mark Jenkins.

The researchers looked at areas that potentially affect driving abilities: depression, anxiety, fatigue, sleep disturbance, pain interference, pain intensity, physical functioning and participation in social activities.

Moderate exercise is the key to keeping your keys, they confirmed. And a decent night's sleep.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, recommends older adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night to combat fatigue and stay alert while driving.

The CDC also recommends 2 ½ to five hours of moderate exercise a week for seniors or 2 ½ hours of high-intensity physical activity. These CDC recommendations are certainly in line with AAA's efforts to keep senior drivers driving longer, Jenkins said.

In fact, there are more senior drivers on the road than ever before. Not only are aging baby boomers driving up the numbers, but the number of drivers over 70 has increased 48 percent between 1997 and 2016, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"Senior drivers are keeping their licenses," observed Russ Rader, institute senior vice president for communications.

In 2016, there were an estimated 32.4 million people 70 and older in the United States. Of these, 26.3 million were licensed drivers, Rader said.

In Florida, there are an estimated 14 million licensed drivers, according to AAA's Jenkins. Of those, 27 percent are 65 or older, he said.

Jenkins emphasized that the auto club does not "have a stance on when drivers give up their keys. We feel it's up to individual drivers to assess their abilities and take action."

Age 83 or 84 is when "people are starting to recognize they might have to hang up their keys," he said. Florida "has no age limit. You can drive as long as you can keep your license."

It's usually a family member who reports a driver. "A person is not likely to self-report (and) tell the state, 'I shouldn't be driving anymore,' " Jenkins said.

AAA offers a detailed series of driving safety tests in the Tampa Bay area known as the Senior Driver Checkup. Kevin Kenyon, driver safety specialist for AAA, travels to the driver's Pinellas or Hillsborough County home to conduct the evaluation. Usually, Kenyon said, he conducts about four a month.

For a fee ($150 for AAA members, $160 for nonmembers), Kenyon will conduct a series of tests designed to evaluate cognitive ability, vision and physical abilities to drive. "If they pass this part, then … they finally get behind the wheel where I take them through left turns, right turns, general driving (skills)." (To schedule a Senior Driver Checkup, call Kenyon at (813) 289-5069.)

"Generally we're getting these calls for the checkup from a son or a daughter," Kenyon said.

The checkup comes with a potential penalty. While 80 percent of those Kenyon tests pass, he said, when they don't, the Senior Driver Checkup has a different outcome.

"We tell them if they fail, we will report them to the Department of Motor Vehicles," Kenyon said. "At that point, we take it as a kind of obligation to their safety and the safety of other motorists."

For the 80 percent who pass, Kenyon often offers some moderate exercises or stretches to help them stay alert and focused.

The Columbia University study found there are six areas in which senior drivers reported potential problems with their driving: braking, steering, looking to the side and rear, adjusting their seat belts, sitting for long periods of time and parking.

Heidi Piccione, assistant professor and physical therapist at the School of Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Sciences at USF Health, offers some simple movements that can help build flexibility for each of the six challenges:

Braking: While sitting with your braking ankle crossed over your thigh, place one hand on the calf and the other over the top of the arch. Pull the ankle to the end of its range, hold for a second and return the ankle to neutral. Repeat.

Steering: Begin with an elastic band around your hands or arms. Pull the band apart about shoulder width and turn both arms 90 degrees as if turning a steering wheel. Return hands or arms to the center, then repeat in the other direction.

Turning to the right, left AND rear: Turn your head toward one side, hold for three seconds, then return to the starting position, looking straight ahead. Repeat in the opposite direction. To make looking to the rear easier, try this: Cross your arms over your chest, then twist your trunk to the side.

Adjusting the seat belt: Close the knotted end of a TheraBand (an elastic band used in physical therapy) in the side of a door. Grasp the other end of the band with your dominant hand. Pull the band diagonally up and across the body toward the opposite shoulder. Pause, then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat.

Sitting FOR long periods in the car: Bend your foot up and down at your ankle joint. Another technique is to use a small lumbar roll (or bath towel) in chairs you sit in frequently. Place the roll at the lower curve of your back. This will help you maintain better posture.

Parking: Practice the stretches for braking, steering and looking left, right and to the rear as explained above.

These stretching exercises can be done daily, and it's not necessary to do all of them at the same time. "These exercises are helpful to maintain or improve functional movements while driving," Piccione said. "As we age, we sometimes lose the quality of these movements due to joint stiffness or inflexibility, and that can carry over into driving skills."

Whatever stretching exercise a senior driver might choose to do, the result could mean more miles on the road — behind the wheel of your own car.

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at travelword@aol.com.

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