Older Drivers

At age 75, Sheila thinks she's a very good driver. And she wanted to stay that way. So she got her eyes and hearing checked to make sure she can see and hear well enough to drive safely. Then she signed up to take a driving course for older drivers at her local automobile club. Will all this effort guarantee Sheila's road safety?

As he was driving to the grocery store one day, 80-year-old Daniel ran over the curb and hit a trash can. His car was only scratched, and he was not hurt. But Daniel was scared because he almost hit a young woman waiting at the bus stop. He began to wonder if he should give up his driver's license. How will Daniel know when it's time for him to stop driving?

How Does Age Affect Driving?

More and more older drivers are on the roads these days. It's important to know that getting older doesn't automatically turn people into bad drivers. Many of us continue to be good, safe drivers as we age. But there are changes that can affect driving skills as we age.

Changes to our Bodies. Over time your joints may get stiff and your muscles weaken. It can be harder to move your head to look back, quickly turn the steering wheel, or safely hit the brakes.

Your eyesight and hearing may change, too. As you get older, you need more light to see things. Also, glare from the sun, oncoming headlights, or other street lights may trouble you more than before. The area you can see around you (called peripheral vision) may become narrower. The vision problems from eye diseases such as cataracts, macular degeneration, or glaucoma can also affect your driving ability.

You may also find that your reflexes are getting slower. Or, your attention span may shorten. Maybe it's harder for you to do two things at once. These are all normal changes, but they can affect your driving skills.

Some older people have conditions like Alzheimer's disease (AD) that change their thinking and behavior. People with AD may forget familiar routes or even how to drive safely. They become more likely to make driving mistakes, and they have more "close calls" than other drivers. However, people in the early stages of AD may be able to keep driving for a while. Caregivers should watch their driving over time. As the disease worsens, it will affect driving ability. Doctors can help you decide whether it's safe for the person with AD to keep driving.

Other Health Changes. While health problems can affect driving at any age, some occur more often as we get older. For example, arthritis, Parkinson's disease, and diabetes may make it harder to drive. People who are depressed may become distracted while driving. The effects of a stroke or even lack of sleep can also cause driving problems. Devices such as an automatic defibrillator or pacemaker might cause an irregular heartbeat or dizziness, which can make driving dangerous.

Smart Driving Tips

Planning before you leave:

  • Plan to drive on streets you know.
  • Limit your trips to places that are easy to get to and close to home.
  • Take routes that let you avoid risky spots like ramps and left turns.
  • Add extra time for travel if driving conditions are bad.
  • Don't drive when you are stressed or tired.

While you are driving:

  • Always wear your seat belt.
  • Stay off the cell phone.
  • Avoid distractions such as listening to the radio or having conversations.
  • Leave a big space, at least two car lengths, between your car and the one in front of you. If you are driving at higher speeds or if the weather is bad, leave even more space between you and the next car.
  • Make sure there is enough space behind you. (Hint: if someone follows you too closely, slow down so that the person will pass you.)
  • Use your rear window defroster to keep the back window clear at all times.
  • Keep your headlights on at all times.

Car safety:

  • Drive a car with features that make driving easier, such as power steering, power brakes, automatic transmission, and large mirrors.
  • Drive a car with air bags.
  • Check your windshield wiper blades often and replace them when needed.
  • Keep your headlights clean and aligned.
  • Think about getting hand controls for the accelerator and brakes if you have leg problems.