Safe Driving For Seniors

by Marcia Dettloff, OD on October 20, 2011

Driving is one of the most cherished activities of seniors. It enhances self esteem, promotes social interaction and enhances independence, all of which improve quality of life. Driving skill is dependent on functional ability more than age so it’s important to get regular physicals and eye examinations to help prevent or identify and treat problems that can adversely affect driving at any age.

While older drivers have the lowest rate of crashes per year of any age group, when you look at crashes per mile driven, the accident rate for drivers over age 65 approaches that of teenager drivers. The fatality rate for drivers aged 85 and older is 9 times higher than the rate for drivers 25 to 69. This is partially because older drivers tend to be more frail making them more prone to injury and less able to recover from injuries sustained in an automobile crash. As the number of older drivers continues to grow, drivers 65 and older are expected to account for 16 percent of all crashes and 25 percent of all fatal crashes.

Driving is a complex skill that demands good vision, motor and mental skills. In addition to changes that occur naturally with aging, many chronic illnesses and medications can negatively impact driving. Drivers need good visual acuity to read road signs and the instrument panel; good peripheral vision to be aware of traffic and potential hazards; visual perception skills to recognize and interpret warning signs. They need adequate movement and strength to turn their head and eyes to scan traffic, turn the steering wheel and step on the brakes. They need to be alert; able to recognize warning signs; react to sudden changes; multi-task and remember where they are going.

Contrast sensitivity decreases with age and with eye diseases such as cataracts, macular degeneration and glaucoma, making it harder to distinguish objects (like cars or pedestrians) from the background. The decrease is most pronounced at night or in stormy weather. Older drivers also experience more glare and adjust more slowly to brightness changes like headlights and the ability to judge speed of oncoming cars.

There are some practical things that older drivers can do to significantly improve their safety. Stay active to maintain strength and flexibility. Make sure your car is senior friendly: easy to get in and out, large displays on dashboard, mirrors on both sides and power controls. Avoid driving at night or during storms. Take familiar routes and avoid heavy traffic. Be especially careful at intersections and avoid making left hand turns whenever possible. Do NOT bring a “copilot” to help navigate or read roads signs and traffic signals. This is a very dangerous practice. Split second decisions are required in critical situations and it takes too long for a driver to react to a co-pilot.

The AARP has a Safety Driver Program to update your driving skills and learn defensive driving techniques. They now have both a classroom or an online course format. Some insurance companies will give a discount on your insurance premium for completion of the program.

Some red flags to watch out for are: recent crashes, near-misses, lots of dings on the car, traffic tickets, getting lost, poor night vision, forgetfulness, and confusion, friends or family refusing to drive with you. The Hartford Insurance Company has a more extensive list of Warning Signs for Older Drivers that may indicate unsafe driving ability.

If you or a caretaker recognize some of these signs be sure to have a physical exam and/or eye exam to rule out and treat any undiagnosed medical problems. If the problems persist, a Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (DRS) can assess driving skills, recommend rehabilitation as needed and suggest possible modifications needed to allow safe driving. The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED) has an online directory you can search for a DRS near you.

There are also some free online assessment tools available:
The University of Michigan SAFER Driving Program is an online assessment survey where you rate your experience over a wide variety of circumstances that may impact driving ability. After completing the survey questions, it provides a list of potential health concerns, which critical driving skills may be affected and it makes personalized recommendations for safer driving.

AAA Roadwise Review is another online self-assessment that takes about 30 min and helps identify skills that need improvement.

If you find that driving is no longer safe, you are not alone. It is estimated that the average male will live 6 yr without driving and female 10 years. There are many resources that can help with the transition and provide tips to maintain as much independence as possible. Even if paid transportation is necessary, it is often less expensive than driving when the total cost of car ownership including maintenance, insurance, taxes and licenses and gas are taken into consideration .

Helpguide.org has an comprehensive article on senior driving: Senior Driving Safety Tips, Warning Signs and Knowing When to Stop

The Hartford has a downloadable pdf guide “We Need to Talk: Family Conversations with Older Drivers” that has information on how to determine when a family member should no longer be driving, how to get them to stop driving, help in making alternative transportation plans and a list of resources.

American Medical Association Older Driver’s Guide Educational Guides and Resources Patient and Caregiver including a safe driver checklist, Successful Aging Tips, Tips for Safe Driving, How to Assist the Older Driver, Getting By Without Driving and other resources.

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