The ability to drive is an essential element of physical and socioeconomic mobility in America. The ability of a person to shop, visit relatives and friends, and travel on vacation on their own schedule are some of the many reasons why cars are a symbol of not only freedom but also independence. This is especially important to seniors, whose sense of independence is already threatened by potential health issues that are associated with advancing age. Some of these health issues, furthermore, can have an adverse effect on an elderly person’s ability to drive safely. In order to maintain one’s independence and protect the safety of themselves and others, seniors will need to pay special attention to, and compensate for, potential problems that can affect their competence when they are behind the wheel.
Senior citizens should beware of a number of problems that can adversely affect their ability to drive. These issues range from physical changes to mental impairments. Some of the most common physical limitations that plague seniors are changes in their hearing and eyesight. Seniors may not be able to see as far ahead or as clearly as they did when they were younger, and hearing loss may prevent them from hearing sirens, warning bells at a railroad crossing, or signs of dangerous activity by other nearby drivers. Aches and pains may make it difficult to turn one’s head or control the clutch or steering wheel, especially if severe arthritis is an issue. Mental impairments can include senility or slower reaction times, which increase the risk of not stopping in time to avoid an accident. Medications, which many seniors take, can also mentally impair a driver by inducing drowsiness as well as a variety of other side-effects. All of these issues can contribute to a higher rate of accidents involving older drivers.
Fortunately, there are many steps that senior drivers can take to maintain their ability to drive safely. Exercise can help increase one’s flexibility, agility, and hand-eye coordination, all of which are necessary skills for operating a vehicle. Drivers who have problems with their sight can adapt by not driving at night or when severe weather conditions are present or imminent. Those with impaired hearing can compensate by wearing hearing aids, avoiding conversations while driving, and turning off music and other audio distractions. Watching the road more carefully may also enable drivers to spot approaching emergency vehicles or potential road hazards before they would need to hear them. Driving at a further distance behind other cars than normal is another way to compensate, as is avoiding heavy traffic and driving in the right-hand lane. Some drivers may choose to avoid highways altogether in favor of street routes. Seniors may also need to have their vision checked every two years and their hearing checked every three years, plus they should make sure to keep their prescription eyeglasses up to date. Never drive while under the influence of medications that are known to impair one’s judgment or cause drowsiness. As an alternative, elderly drivers can arrange for alternative transportation when they know conditions aren’t safe for them to be behind the wheel. This includes public transportation, carpooling, calling a taxi, or getting a ride from a relative or trusted friend. Planning routes, especially to unfamiliar places, can also help older drivers reduce the odds of encountering hazardous driving situations. Keeping the car in top shape is especially important for seniors. For instance, worn-out brakes make stopping even more difficult and can result in an accident when a senior is already faced with increased reaction times in emergency situations.
Despite all of the precautions that an elderly person may take, however, there may come a time when they can no longer safely get behind the wheel of a vehicle. Excessively poor eyesight is one example of a condition that makes safe driving impossible. Issues with memory loss can cause a driver to get lost or even forget the rules of the road, which can lead to an accident. Declining motor skills and reflexes contribute to increased reaction times, which can make it prohibitively difficult to take corrective action in the event of a collision threat. Arthritis may make it impossible to look over one’s shoulder in order to change lanes safely, while weakness in the muscles can make even steering a car problematic. Finally, friends or relatives may notice the driver is seeing an increase in the number of near-collisions due to the aforementioned problems. When these situations occur and they cannot be resolved by medication or corrections in one’s driving habits, the responsible solution is to put the safety of others first and stop driving.
When forced to stop driving by circumstances that are beyond their control, it is often a traumatic experience for senior drivers. When faced with transitioning into a life without an automobile, counseling may be necessary to help them adjust to their loss of mobility. Assistance from willing friends and family is also crucial to prevent depression or anxiety over the loss of driving privileges. Retirement communities and churches can also provide additional options for seniors who can no longer drive.
Losing one’s driver’s license and the ability to drive is a possibility that all seniors must consider. Because cars are such a part of one’s life, this can be a difficult adjustment to make. Fortunately, there are many ways that seniors can adjust and even improve their driving skills to safely stay on the road as long as possible. Although the loss of a vehicle may take some adjustment, there are other options that are available when and if a person is no longer able to drive.
For more tips on senior driving safety, click on the links below.
- Older Adult Drivers – Get the Facts
- Safe Driving: Driving after 75
- Senior Driving: Everyday Driving Challenges
- Safe Driving For Seniors: Officials Get Creative
- DC Department of Motor Vehicles: Safety Tips for Older Drivers
- Older Drivers: 7 Tips For Driver Safety
- Paving the Road for Safer Senior Drivers (PDF)
- Senior Guide to Safe Driving (PDF)
- Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully
- NIH Senior Health: Tips for Safe Driving
- Senior Driving Safety Tips, Warning Signs, and Knowing When to Stop
By Ted Burgess