With age comes wisdom and experience, but aging also may affect some functional performance. For example, you might experience some changes that make driving more difficult.
One of those changes is decreased processing speed for reaction time, which is the ability to take in visual information and produce a motor reaction to it: You see the deer in the road, and you hit the brake or turn the wheel.
“Both decreased reaction time and changes in vision are implicated in accidents involving older drivers,” says Jenny Womack, PhD, occupational therapist and associate director of the UNC Partnerships in Aging Program.
The good news? By reducing risk factors and following safe driving practices, you may be able to continue driving safely long into your golden years. In fact, research shows senior drivers already tend to practice good habits such as wearing seat belts and not speeding.
“When we think of driving safety for older drivers, there is a triangle of factors: the person, the car that they’re driving and the environment in which they’re driving,” Dr. Womack says. “And there are things you can do in all three areas to maximize the fitness to drive.”
If you’re an older driver yourself, try these tips to improve driving safety. And if you have a loved one who is an older driver, see the last section for help.
1. Take care of your health.
Stay physically active and get regular checkups to keep you in the best driving shape. Pay special attention to your eyes.
“Maximize your vision, which means making sure any corrective lenses you need are in good shape. If you wear glasses, talk with your provider about anti-reflective lenses,” Dr. Womack says.
Manage any chronic health conditions that could affect your ability to drive. For example, if you have diabetes and your blood sugar is lower at certain times of the day, avoid driving during those times.
“Know your body and any patterns it has that may affect your driving ability,” Dr. Womack says.
It’s also important to decrease distractions in your driving environment. “As we get older, it’s more difficult to attend to multiple stimuli at the same time because our ability to process information slows,” Dr. Womack says.
To that end, she recommends that older drivers minimize the number and intensity of stimuli while driving. For example, turn off the radio when engaged in conversation and pull over to talk or check directions on mobile phones.
2. Maximize your car’s safety features.
Make your car as safe as possible by keeping tires in good condition, cleaning your windshield, windows and headlights often and ensuring your headlights are aligned correctly so they shine in the right direction; this will help you see at night without inadvertently blinding other drivers.
“Nighttime glare is a big problem for a lot of older drivers, especially if they have cataracts. And over half of us do develop cataracts at some point after the age of 50,” Dr. Womack says. “So it’s important to keep your headlights focused the right way and pay attention to roadway markings instead of looking into oncoming headlights.”
CarFit is an educational program that offers older adults the opportunity to check how well their personal vehicles “fit” them and offers a free vehicle safety assessment. “We set up stations in parking lots and have older drivers drive in with their own car to go through a 12-point checklist addressing the adjustability features of their car, how they have their mirrors set and if their headlights and turn signals are working,” Dr. Womack says.
3. Keep an eye on the weather.
While you cannot control the weather or your driving environment, take these factors into consideration before driving. Make sure roads are in good condition at the time you choose to drive.
“Wait until a heavy rainstorm is over or snow is cleared from the roads,” Dr. Womack says.
Also think about the position of the sun and avoid driving when the light is too intense, to avoid a glare being a problem as you drive. Consider traffic conditions in the areas where you’re driving and the best time of day to avoid heavy traffic.
“We see a lot of older drivers already do this even without a nudge to do it,” Dr. Womack says. “They tend to self-monitor and self-limit, so they’ll often not drive at the busiest time of day, not drive at night, and limit the hours that they drive at one single time.”
4. Take a driving self-assessment.
If you’re concerned about your driving abilities, you can take an online self-assessment from AAA to help you determine if you might have safety risks while driving.
“A lot of people are very concerned about the consequences if they reveal to a health care provider that they’re having some concerns about their driving, so this assessment offers ways to help you determine what might be red flags,” Dr. Womack says.
If you do identify concerns, your next step should be to talk to your primary care provider, who will test your vision, cognition and reaction time and discuss alternatives for transportation if necessary. If available in your area, your primary care provider may recommend more extensive evaluation by a driver rehabilitation specialist, most often an occupational therapist.
If you’re worried about an older driver, do this.
If you’re concerned about a loved one’s ability to continue driving, AARP offers a free online seminar called We Need to Talk that will help you determine how to address your concerns and provides tools to help you have this conversation.
“The first thing to determine is how you think the older person is going to feel about a conversation about their driving and who might be the best person in their life to address concerns,” Dr. Womack says.
Before deciding that your loved one needs to stop driving, first be aware of the source of your concerns and find a way to address them. For example, are you reacting simply to someone’s age, or do you have firsthand knowledge of driving difficulties? If you’re concerned about vision impairment, ask when the driver last had an eye exam. Make sure the car’s headlights are working, the tires are in good shape and the windshield and windows are clean.
If you feel strongly that your loved one needs to stop driving, think through how stopping driving will affect his or her daily routines and activities.
“Driving cessation typically leads to social isolation, which can lead to further health decline,” Dr. Womack says. “The conversation is really hard because it doesn’t just mean that somebody might lose their driver’s license. It means that, in many cases, other people such as family and friends are going to need to start providing transportation.”
To help loved ones stay independent as long as possible when they’re no longer driving, you can help them find alternative transportation, whether that means getting rides from family members or learning the public transit system. Local departments or agencies on aging can provide valuable information and resources, as can driver rehabilitation services in regional health centers.
If you are concerned about aging and driving, talk to your primary care provider. If you don’t have one, find a doctor near you.