Older Drivers: Continued Independence and Safety on the Road
Driving is not only a necessity for many older drivers; it is important to their sense of independence to be able to get into the car and go, whenever and wherever they want. Many older drivers don’t want to “bother” their children to take them places, and some older adults have no one to drive for them. Many people can drive well into their later years but, as with their vehicles, the more mileage on the body, the greater the opportunity for wear and tear that affects performance.
Driving is not a right, it is a privilege, whether you are 16 or 96. Every time you drive, you are at risk for a crash, no matter how long you have driven or how good your driving record is. We all have a responsibility to be at our best when we get behind the wheel.
Here are some suggestions for older drivers to consider.
- Eye health is important. Cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration can significantly impact your ability to see. Eye exams are done in an office under optimal lighting conditions; unfortunately, the driving environment is ever changing. Maximizing your vision is critical to safe driving. People with decreased vision often do not know what they are not seeing, and may be hazards to others on the road.
- Driving requires a certain amount of strength, dexterity and coordination. Even doing chores around the home provides exercise and the opportunity to stretch those muscles and keep joints limber. Take walks, join a senior exercise program. Play with your pets or grandchildren.
- As we age, most of us develop some chronic conditions: arthritis, hearing loss, diabetes, difficulty sleeping, heart conditions, etc. One or two conditions may not have a big impact on driving but, as they start adding up, they can have a cumulative effect. For example, you may already have arthritis in your neck that results in difficulty turning your head. If you lose some peripheral vision, as we all do over time, you may have difficulty changing lanes because you cannot see the vehicle in the “blind spot” next to you. Decreased hearing and vision may mean difficulty detecting an oncoming emergency vehicle or the sound of the horn of the vehicle that you inadvertently cut off. Discuss all health issues with your doctor and follow recommendations. Don’t assume that, because you have had a condition for some time, it won’t affect your driving today. Understand, too, how medications can affect driving. Ask your doctor about over-the-counter medications you may be taking. Some OTC medications interfere with prescription medications and can further impair your ability to drive.
- One advantage older drivers have over younger drivers is experience. You realize that you don’t have to speed, cut in front of others or take unnecessary risks just to go to the grocery store. Many older drivers with chronic conditions can compensate; for example, going to the store between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., thus avoiding rush hour traffic. Additional tips: Plan your routes to avoid busy or hazardous intersections, and take advantage of routes with turning arrows. Limit left-hand turns. Avoid bad weather and dusk/dawn/night driving, especially if you have vision problems like cataracts. Leave more space between you and the vehicle in front, to permit more time to react to changes. When stopping at a light, leave enough space in front so that you can still see the tires of the vehicle in front of you.
- As we age, many of us lose some height, making it difficult to see over the wheel of the vehicle or to use the mirrors effectively. Adjust the seat height or use a firm cushion to raise you up to see better, and be sure the mirrors are adjusted for you to see behind the vehicle. Make sure you can effectively reach the pedals.
- Driving is more than sitting behind the wheel and pushing pedals. It also requires you to go from your home to the vehicle, enter and exit the vehicle, and go back into your home at the end of the trip. Good balance and ability to walk a distance are important factors in the use of an automobile. Discuss with your doctor any difficulty with balance, shortness of breath, or difficulty negotiating stairs or curbs. Your doctor may recommend that you see a physical therapist for exercises, which will make you safer when you travel.
- Several driver refresher courses are available. AAA and AARP provide educational materials and instruction, as do some driving schools. Many experienced drivers develop bad habits or short cuts that, coupled with chronic illness, can make driving more hazardous. Pick up a “Digest of Motor Vehicle Laws” at your local Bureau of Motor Vehicles and review it. There may be new rules of which you are not aware or old rules that you have forgotten.
- Anyone can develop a condition that impairs driving. Discuss with your family what would happen if you could no longer drive. Having a plan before you need it, which you can play an important role in developing, is far more acceptable than having a decision forced upon you by others.
- Recognize that driving is a responsibility to yourself and others. Being involved in a crash has serious consequences financially, physically and emotionally, not only for you but for everyone involved. Most adults outlive their ability to drive; it is your responsibility to make a reasoned decision when this time comes, and to listen to the advice of family, friends and medical personnel.