AUGUSTA, Maine — Telling your aging loved one that it might be time to stop driving may be one of the most difficult conversations you’ll ever have, but intervention by families and doctors is the key to keeping elderly drivers safe, according to experts.

A national report released Wednesday found that Maine ranks fourth in the nation in its percentage of fatal crashes involving drivers 65 or older and ninth in terms of the number of licensed drivers in that age bracket.

According to Augusta-based Dr. Daniel K. Onion, who is one of the state’s foremost experts on elderly driving issues, those percentages only will increase as the baby boom generation ages and young people continue to move away.

“Maine is one of the oldest states in the country,” said Onion, who is a geriatric doctor, elder issues consultant and member of the Maine Senior Drivers Coalition.

“The vast majority of senior drivers do a good job, recognize they have problems and take measures to correct them,” he said. “A small percentage have a cognitive impairment and they can’t recognize their own disabilities. That’s when interventions are called for.”

Unfortunately, Maine’s rural nature and dearth of public transportation modes compound the problem of what options are available when senior citizens finally give up their keys. Onion said the highest concentrations of elderly drivers are in some of Maine’s most sparsely populated areas, such as Somerset and Aroostook counties.

According to the report released Wednesday, which was published by a nonprofit transportation research group called TRIP, there were 5,750 crash fatalities in the United States in 2010 that involved at least one driver 65 or older. Even though drivers of that age account for about 8 percent of all miles driven in the U.S., they comprise about 17 percent of all traffic fatalities.

The population of American drivers 65 and older will grow by 60 percent by 2025, according to the report, which calls for road improvements, driver education, safer vehicles and better public transportation options as ways to keep older drivers safer.

John O’Dea, CEO of the Associated Contractors of Maine, said TRIP’s report highlights the need for more investment in Maine roads.

“We must maintain and modernize our transportation system to assure it is safe for users of all ages,” said O’Dea in a press release. “But these safety needs cannot be addressed without adequate transportation funding at the local, state and federal level.”

According to Barbara Redmond, chief deputy secretary of state, the only law Maine has on the books in regards to older drivers is that those age 65 and older must renew their licenses every four years — as opposed to every six years for the rest of the population — and are required to pass a vision test when they renew. The Department of Motor Vehicles also can intervene through its Medical Advisory Board in response to tips from doctors or a person’s family members, but those referrals happen voluntarily.

There are a range of restrictions the DMV can put on a driver’s license, such as restricting the person to driving within 25 miles of their home or only during daylight hours.

“Based on what’s in the person’s functional ability profile, we determine if the person needs restrictions on their license or needs to be retested,” said Redmond. “There are conditions that require that we keep a medical report on file in order for a person to maintain their license.”

Redmond said the DMV often receives concerns about a person’s driving ability from police and doctors, but that in many instances the most effective referrals come from family members. In that case, the DMV could require a driver to retake a driver’s exam or seek treatment for whatever condition is hampering their motoring skills.

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Arnold said one of the best things families can do is to broach the issue with their loved ones long before problems develop.

“One thing we really want to focus on is planning for retirement of driving and speaking with family members when they’re in their 50s and 60s to develop a plan for later on,” said Arnold. “That’s so they can make that step when they need to and not be surprised by it. For an elderly person to give up their freedom of driving in Maine is exponentially harder [than it is in more populated states].”

Onion said there are indicators that families should look for in order to know when the time is right for an intervention. Among them are minor or major accidents, infractions such as failing to stop at a stop sign or driving the wrong way on a one-way street, forgetting where they are going, and any new problem with a person’s driving that wasn’t there before.

“A question I like to ask family members is, ‘Is it OK for the grandchildren or great-grandchildren to ride with the person?’” said Onion. “Oftentimes family members know there is a problem long before the driver does. Riding with the person or following them in your car when they’re going somewhere to see how they drive is a good suggestion.”

Onion also supports the use of a free online test developed by the American Automobile Association called a Roadwise Review. The test, which is available through AAA’s website, examines everything from knowledge of driving laws to vision and physical reaction times.

Onion said measures like these are preferred by most drivers over what he called draconian measures by the Department of Motor Vehicles and that the vast majority of states rightfully are hesitant to put too many requirements on older drivers. Besides, he said, completing a Roadwise Review is a good way to begin a difficult conversation. The average person lives about five or 10 years longer than their ability to drive holds out, said Onion.

“If you’re conscientious enough to be taking the test, you’re conscientious enough to be taking measures related to your driving ability,” said Onion. “It’s a big problem, but we’re most anxious to help people drive as long as they can.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.