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updated 5/17/2011 2:26:44 PM ET 2011-05-17T18:26:44

Aging is associated with an increase in crucial driving mistakes, even among healthy people with safe driving records, according to a new study.

The oldest people in the study, who were between ages 85 and 89, made four times as many critical errors in a driving test than the youngest people in the study, who were between ages 70 and 74, the study said.

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Overall, 17 percent of the elderly drivers in the study made mistakes such as veering or failing to use check blind spots that caused the professional driving instructor accompanying them to hit the emergency brake or grab onto the steering wheel.

Aging causes declines in brain functioning ability, which could affect driving skills and the ability to ignore distractions while on the road, said researchers from Australian National University.

The study was published online this week in the journal Neuropsychology.

Testing driving skills
Researchers had 266 volunteers between the ages of 70 and 88 take some tests measuring how well their brain functions. None of the volunteers had any signs of dementia, they all lived independently and they all drove at least once a week

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Then, the volunteers were taken out for a 12-mile drive. A professional driving instructor rode in the car with them and had access to a brake on the passenger's side of the vehicle, while an occupational therapist rode in the backseat to note critical errors, including speeding, veering, tailgating, sudden braking without cause and failing to check blind spots.

Among those who made the driving mistakes, the adults ages 70 to 74 made, on average, less than one critical error. But adults ages 85 to 89 made, on average, nearly four critical errors, according to the study. And the volunteers who had had an accident in the last five years were also the most likely to make a critical driving error.

Men and women made the same number of mistakes in the study. The most common mistake was failing to check blind spots, followed by veering across lanes of traffic and failing to use turn signals, the study said.

The finding shows that older drivers may need extra training or screening tests to ensure they can be safe on the road, said study researcher Kaarin J. Anstey, a psychologist who directs the Aging Research Unit at Australian National University.

Tips for elderly drivers
Elderly drivers ages 75 and older made up 7.5 percent of fatal car crashes and 3.1 percent of all car accidents in the United States in 2008. There were 30 fatal accidents for every 100,000 licensed drivers for people ages 75 and older, while there were only 20 fatal accidents for every 100,000 licensed drivers for people between ages 65 and 74, and 19 fatal accidents for every 100,000 licensed drivers for people between 55 and 64, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As the Baby Boom generation grows older, the more elderly drivers there will be on the roads. In 2009, there were 33 million people age 65 and older with a driver's license, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC has some tips for older drivers to make sure everyone has a safe driving experience :

  • Review medications with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure there are no side effects that can impair your driving ability.
  • Get your eyes checked at least once a year, and always wear glasses or contact lenses while driving, if needed.
  • Plan your driving route before you start driving.
  • Don't tailgate; leave a large distance between you and the car in front of you.
  • Avoid distractions such as cellphones, loud radios and eating.
  • Consider public transportation if you don't feel safe driving.

Pass it on: Aging's effect on brain functioning could impact the ability of elderly people to drive.

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