There is one thing about getting older that cannot be argued: As we age, our driving abilities change. They may be compromised due to factors including slowing motor functions, hearing impairment, vision issues, and/or medications that can influence driving capabilities and make driving more challenging.
It is important for seniors to take greater care when driving and to do everything possible to ensure they keep physically and mentally fit. Being aware of the challenges they and those close to them are facing means taking precautions to stay safe behind the wheel.
Changes in Eyesight
For older adults, it may be harder to see people, things, and movement outside the direct line of sight. It may take longer to read street or traffic signs or to recognize familiar places. When driving at night, it may be even more difficult to see clearly. Glare from oncoming headlights or street lights can be a problem. During the day, the sun might be blinding.
Glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration can cause vision problems making driving unsafe.
What to Do
People over the age of 65, should see their eye doctor at least every year. If glasses or contact lenses to see distances are needed, make sure the prescription is kept up-to-date and that the glasses or contacts are always worn when driving.
They should reduce or stop nighttime driving if it is difficult to see in the dark, and avoid driving during sunrise and sunset when the sun can be directly in the line of vision.
It may be harder to notice horns, sirens, or noises coming from the car. Without these warning sounds, a driver will not be aware when it is necessary to pull over or get out of the way.
What to Do
Seniors should discuss any concerns about hearing loss with a physician and be sure to have a hearing test at least every three years after age 50.
When driving, older adults should keep the interior of the car as quiet as possible. If they have hearing aids, they should be worn whenever they drive.
Stiff Joints and Sore Muscles
The aches and pains of getting older affect joints and muscles, often making it difficult to turn the head to look back, to turn the steering wheel quickly, or even to brake safely. Arthritis, a common ailment among older adults, is often the culprit, affecting the ability to drive.
Reflexes naturally slow in the senior years. Stiff joints or weak muscles make it harder to move quickly. Loss of feeling or tingling in fingers and feet can make it difficult to steer or use foot pedals. Mentally, shorter attention spans may occur, making it more difficult to do two things at once.
What to Do
If pain, stiffness, or sore muscles are getting in the way of a senior driving safely, they should see their doctor. Being physically active, exercising to keep and improve strength and flexibility are important, as are getting a full night’s sleep every night to help stay alert and aware when driving.
Effects of Medications
Some medications can make people feel drowsy, lightheaded, or simply less alert than usual. Many drugs have side effects that can make driving unsafe. It is important to pay attention to how these medications may affect driving.
What to Do
Medicine labels must be read carefully, being sure to look for any warnings. Making a list of all medications being taken and talking with a doctor or pharmacist about how these drugs can affect driving is crucial. No one should drive if the medications make them lightheaded or drowsy.
Getting older means people need to take greater care with driving habits. Here are some general driving tips that seniors … and drivers of all ages … need to adopt as routine driving habits:
- Always wear a seatbelt and make sure passengers do the same.
- Leave more space than you think you need between you and the car in front of you (one car length for every 10 miles per hour you are driving).
- Start breaking early when you need to stop.
- Avoid driving during rush-hour traffic and in heavy traffic areas, when possible.
- On a fast-moving highway, drive in the right-hand lane.
- Avoid driving at night or in bad weather or traveling on the highways if these present a problem.
- Take extra care when yielding the right of way, turning (especially making left turns), changing lanes, passing, and using expressway ramps.
- Be a defensive driver and avoid the distractions of radio, cell phones, GPS, and digital music players, all of which make it harder to concentrate on the road. Pay extra attention to avoid accidents.
- Use window defrosters to keep both the front and back windows clear.
- Have your driving skills checked by a trained professional – an occupational therapist or driving rehabilitation specialist.
- Take a defensive driving course. Organizations like AARP or AAA or your car insurance company can help you find a class nearby. You might even save on your auto insurance premiums.
By paying close attention to their abilities and limitations, most seniors can continue driving well into their 70s and beyond. If you are concerned about a loved one’s ability to drive safely, talk to a family member, friend or your physician about what the next steps should be.
In addition to housing, healthcare and programs for seniors, SALMON Health and Retirement communities offer resources for caregivers and family members. To learn more about the options available to you and your loved ones, contact us today for more information.