From the moment we learn to drive, we gain independence, freedom, and control. Driving is linked to our ability to socialize, work, and enjoy our favorite activities.
When you’ve been driving for many years, it begins to feel like second nature. However, driving is a skill that relies on your visual abilities, strength, focus, and coordination. Safe driving also requires the use of your memory, attention span, and comprehension.
As we age, these skills may decline and begin to affect the way we drive. While it's important to maintain independence as we age, it is also important to recognize changes in your abilities or in the abilities of a loved one.
If your skills are impaired, you may need to adjust the way you drive to stay safe behind the wheel.
Car crash rates per mile driven begin to increase at age 65. These risks become higher during more complex tasks such as making a left turn. Fatality rates are excessively high for drivers over 65. It is projected that by 2020, approximately 40 million (75 percent) of those over 65 will be licensed drivers.
It’s important to be honest about any changes in your driving skills. If you are caring for an older driver, ensure they are still able to drive safely. Vision impairment, fatigue, or medication can all contribute to poor driving. However, there are some things you can do to keep yourself safer on the road.
Tips for staying safe behind the wheel:
- Adjust the driver's seat so that your chest is 10 inches or more from the steering wheel.
- Your eyes should be at least 3 inches higher than the top of the steering wheel, so adjust your posture, your seat, or use a seat cushion to elevate yourself if necessary.
- Minimize your "blind spot" in the rear of the vehicle by adjusting your rear and side view mirrors.
- If left turns are a problem, minimize your need to make left turns if possible, plan a route with more right turns.
- Avoid rush hour by planning an outing during quieter times, like on a Sunday afternoon.
- Avoid driving after dark, whenever possible.
- Avoid driving in bad weather.
- Drive in familiar areas and avoid driving long distances.
- Don't drive tired or while medicated.
- Stop driving all together if it becomes unsafe for you behind the wheel.
Be sure to talk to your physician about your concerns as well. They can help you by ordering appropriate tests and make necessary referrals to specialists who can properly evaluate issues that may interfere with driving. Your physician can also make changes to medications, alter treatments, or recommend adaptive equipment and rehabilitation to overcome issues that can make driving unsafe.
Caregivers can help
The Physician’s Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers suggests a few additional questions you can ask a loved one to help you better assess whether driving is an issue for them.
- How much do you drive?
- Do you have any problems when you drive?
- Do you have any problems driving at night, turning the steering wheel, using the foot pedals, or reacting to traffic situations?
- Do you think you are a safe driver?
- Have you received any traffic violations or warnings in the past two years?
Be open and honest when discussing this topic. Communicate clearly about your intentions and be prepared to present some solutions should your loved one need to stop driving. Make it clear that the goal is not to diminish their independence, but rather to keep them and others on the road safe from harm.
Resources for safe driving
Use these resources to learn about safe driving or for help with speaking to an older family member:
AAA Roadwise Review – Online directions for testing vision, leg strength, head and neck mobility, memory, and cognition with recommendations from the results
Drivers 65 Plus – Self-rating form to examine driving ability
Know the Licensing Laws for Your State – provides mandatory reporting information to help concerned families and friends identify the laws for their specific state.
Multiple topics related to older driver safety.