White-haired drivers who can't see over the steering wheel provide fodder for late-night comics, but it's no laughing matter. Vision and hearing changes, slower reflexes and other changes associated with aging affect driving abilities and can, in turn, increase auto insurance rates. Taking a proactive approach to reduce these changes can help keep those rate increases to a minimum.
"Historically, auto insurance rates decreased after the age of 65, but that may soon change," says Bill Dowd, president of Encharter Insurance in Massachusetts.
Drivers under age 25 years pay the highest rates because they're typically less experienced on the road and file the most insurance claims, Dowd says. After 25, your individual driving characteristics (such as your driving record and your claims-filing history) determine your rates. Then, at 65, most insurers start discounting rates again.
"Insurance companies now find, however, that we get more claims as people age," Dowd says. "People live longer. When insurance companies give a discount to a 65-year-old, they don't take into account that person will eventually be 80 years old. There's a big difference between (the driving abilities) of a 65-year-old and an 80-year-old."
A Kansas State University study released in April 2010showed that while older drivers drove fewer miles than younger drivers, crash involvement per mile driven and crash severity was much higher for seniors.
Getting older drivers on course
States across the country are tightening the rules for aging drivers, says Frank Darras, an insurance attorney. Drivers 75 and older are required to take a road test in Illinois and New Hampshire, for example. Colorado requires drivers over age 61 to renew their license every five years, compared with every 10 years for people under 61. For other state requirements, visit www.iihs.org/laws/olderdrivers.aspx.
"One of the best things seniors can do is to take a mature-driving safety course. This can ensure that you continue to drive safely and should help keep insurance rates low," Darras says.
Not all safety courses offer equal benefits, however. Courses using driving simulators and feedback improve driving skills better than online testing, according to a study published in January 2011 in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
If you have medical issues that may affect your driving, consider working with an occupational therapist who holds specializations with names like Specialty Certification in Driving and Community Mobility or Certified Driving Rehabilitation Specialist. You can find a driving rehab specialist at www1.aota.org/driver_search/index.aspx.
Here are the top three aging issues that affect drivers and ways to minimize their impact on your insurance premiums.
Reaction times generally become slower as we age, says Dr. Peter Osterbauer, a neurologist in Anchorage, Alaska. "Most people do not participate in activities -- such as sports -- that help keep us agile as we age," he says.
We also begin to lose our sense of proprioception -- our ability to tell us where our limbs are when we're not looking. "This can affect braking or using a clutch pedal," Osterbauer says. Diabetes and vitamin B-12 deficiency may speed up this decline.
Stay young:Most importantly, eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise, Osterbauer says. "Playing sports and even video games can help maintain and improve reaction time," he says.
"For some, nearsightedness decreases as we age, and we may have a small increase in astigmatism (a change in the cornea or lens that causes blurriness)," says Dr. Sandy Feldman, a vision specialist in San Diego. "For everyone, near vision diminishes, requiring reading glasses. This might make it more difficult to see the dashboard or the radio."
Seeing road signs and exit signs at nights also may become more difficult.
"As our eyes age, the lens inside the eye begins to change colors," Feldman says. "Instead of being clear, it becomes cloudy and more diffuse. We may need more light to see.Distance vision becomes blurrier and you may see glare or haloes while driving at night."
Stay young: Schedule a yearly eye exam. Regular exams help determine the presence of conditions such as cataracts or glaucoma, which might impair our ability to see clearly.Keep your eyeglass or contact lens prescription up to date.
Tight, inflexible back and neck muscles make checking behind your car a challenge.
"Turning around to back out of a parking spot often becomes more difficult," says Dr. C. David Geier Jr., assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina. "Shoulder issues or rotator cuff impingement (a compression of muscles that stabilize the shoulders) make turning around painful and limit mobility."
In addition, if you've recently had surgery on an arm or leg -- even a minor procedure -- it may take weeks before full range of motion returns, Geier says. Some people insist on driving with one arm in a sling. Don't do it, he says. "No matter how well you think you can drive one-handed," he says, "you won't be able to react quickly to a situation and will be more likely to be involved in an accident."
Sitting for hours in a car can trigger knee pain for those with arthritis or patella femoral syndrome (a common cause of knee pain resulting from changes in cartilage under the kneecap)."Straightening your legs helps relieve the pain, but this creates a dangerous scenario if you do so while driving," Geier says.
Stay young: Maintain a daily regular stretching routine to keep muscles flexible. Follow doctors' advice when injured, and take a break at a rest stop or another safe area away from traffic to stretch your legs while you're on a long road trip.