How Aging Affects Driving
Editor’s Note: For millions of older people, maintaining the ability to drive is an essential part of an independent life. Yet as we age, our skills on the road may lessen, and we need to make adjustments in order to keep driving. Here, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is an overview of senior drivers’ difficulties and how they can be overcome.
Most people 70 and older have drivers’ licenses. They tend to drive fewer miles than younger drivers. But they are driving more miles than in the past, often favoring local roads over highways. As the overall population ages, there will be more older drivers on the road.
Driving is a complicated task. It requires people to see and hear clearly; pay close attention to other cars, traffic signs and signals, and pedestrians; and react quickly to events. Drivers must be able to accurately judge distances and speeds and monitor movement on both sides as well in front of them.
It’s common for people to have declines in visual, thinking, or physical abilities as they get older. As a result, older drivers are more likely than younger ones to have trouble in certain situations, including making left turns, changing lanes, and navigating through intersections.
Common mistakes of older drivers include failing to yield the right of way; failing to stay in the correct lane; misjudging the time or distance needed to turn in front of traffic; failing to stop completely at a stop sign; and either speeding or driving too slowly.
But there are ways to staying safe on the road as you get older. Here are some strategies to help you drive safely if you experience changes in vision, hearing, attention and reaction time, or strength, flexibility and coordination.
Make Sure You See Well Enough
Have your vision checked every one to two years. An eye doctor can treat many vision problems. For example, surgery can remove cataracts.
If you wear glasses or contact lenses, ask your eye doctor or optometrist if you need a new prescription. Antireflective lenses and polarized sunglasses can help reduce glare. Always wear corrective lenses while driving.
Limit driving to daytime hours if you have trouble seeing in the dark.
Keep your windshield, mirrors, and headlights clean. Turn up the brightness on the instrument panel.
Adjust your seat height so you can see the road for at least 10 feet ahead of your car.
Many states require people who renew their driver’s licenses to have their vision tested. Such requirements have been shown to reduce deaths among older drivers. People who do not pass the test are told to get an eye exam.
Check Your Hearing
Have your hearing checked every 3 years.
If necessary, get a hearing aid – and use it when you drive.
Keep the inside of the car as quiet as possible while driving. If the radio or conversations with other people are distracting, limit those, too.
Watch for the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. You may not hear a siren from a distance.
Watch Your Attention and Reaction Time
Leave enough space between you and the car in front of you. Find a marker ahead of you, such as a tree or sign. When the car ahead of you passes this mark, count “1001, 1002, 1003, 1004.” Leave enough space so that you get to 1004 before you reach the marker.
Start braking early when you need to stop.
Avoid high-traffic areas if possible. Drive during the day and avoid rush hour. Find other routes with less traffic.
When on the highway, drive in the right-hand lane, where traffic moves more slowly.
Scan far down the road so you can anticipate problems and plan your actions.
Avoid left turns if they make you uncomfortable. Often, you can make three right turns instead one left turn to get where you want to go. If you must turn left, pay attention to the speed of oncoming traffic.
Make Sure You’re Fit Enough
See your doctor if you think that pain or stiffness gets in the way of your driving.
Drive a car with power steering, power brakes, and large mirrors. Some people use special equipment that makes it easier to steer or operate the foot pedals.
Check your side mirror to eliminate your blind spot. First, lean your head against the window, then adjust the mirror outward so that when you look at the inside edge, you can barely see the side of your car.
Exercise or be physically active — it can make driving easier.
Check Your Medications
Read the medicine label carefully, and pay attention to any warnings. If the label says, “Do not use while operating heavy machinery,” do not drive while taking this medicine. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are not sure about a particular medicine.
Ask a doctor or pharmacist to explain how your medications could affect your driving. It might be possible to adjust the dose or timing to minimize side effects.
Do not drive if you feel lightheaded or drowsy.
Never drive after drinking alcoholic drinks or mixing these drinks and medications.
Improve Your Driving
If you find that your driving skills have declined, it may be time to make some changes. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving up the car keys. You might just need to change your driving habits.
Many older drivers “self-regulate.” This means they think about when it is easiest and hardest to drive, then make adjustments. For example, a person who does not see well at night may get rides from friends after dark. Living with limitations requires some planning ahead.
Defensive driving classes help lots of older adults brush up on their driving skills. These classes can help older people feel more confident behind the wheel. A bonus: many auto insurers give premium discounts to people who complete driver-safety classes.
Consider driving refresher courses. Driving laws and techniques have changed since you first learned to drive. Driving refresher courses, taken online or in the classroom, teach participants about current traffic laws and driving skills that take into account age-related changes in vision, hearing, and other abilities. Training may last from 2 to 10 hours, depending on the sponsoring organization and format. Cost varies. To find out about driver’s education programs for older adults, check in the yellow pages under “driving schools.”
Physical conditioning has been shown to help improve driver performance. According to one study, 12 weeks of exercises improved older drivers’ flexibility, coordination, and speed and reduced their driving errors. For flexibility exercises you can do, click here. But be sure to talk to your doctor first about whether this kind of program is right for you.