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Driving Safely

As an older adult, driving can symbolize independence and freedom. It can help prevent isolation and allow you to take care of yourself. While you may drive responsibly by recognizing your own limitations and avoiding problem times, such as night driving, studies show that with aging, driving may become unsafe. This is due in part to chronic disease, physical limitations and cognitive limitations.

Giving up the car keys may be a difficult decision. Here are some warning signs from the American Medical Association that it might be time to give up the car keys.

  • Forgetting to buckle up
  • Not obeying stop signs or traffic lights
  • Driving too slowly or too quickly
  • Often gets lost, even on familiar routes
  • Stopping at a green light or at the wrong time
  • Seeming not to notice other cars, walkers or bike riders on the road
  • Not staying in his or her lane
  • Being honked at or passed often
  • Reacting slowly to driving situations
  • Making poor driving decisions
  • Recent near misses or fender benders
  • Recent tickets for moving violations
  • Comments from passengers about close calls, near misses or the driver not seeing other vehicles

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), older drivers are more likely to be involved in a crash while driving, and more likely to die in that crash. Some of the age-associated problems that contribute to increased motor vehicle fatality include:

  1. Vision decline. As the eye ages, the lens of the eye changes, requiring more light and a broader viewing field. As a result, older drivers have a greater risk for accidents at night or in poor weather conditions. Furthermore, older drivers struggle with congested or fast moving traffic when peripheral vision is needed to negotiate traffic. Older drivers may also experience the following vision related problems:

    If you are experiencing any of these vision-related problems, you should get regular check-ups and get your doctor's approval to drive.

  2. Hearing decline. Some people may have difficulty hearing other driver's horns, police or emergency vehicle sirens, and other roadway safety indicators. Others may frequently miss verbal directions and become confused on the road. Older drivers should have their hearing checked annually and wear a hearing aid when necessary, to prevent the likelihood of accidents.

  3. Cognitive decline caused by dementia. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia among older adults. Those diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia will experience a noticeable decline in cognitive function. Signs that driving skills may be affected include:

    • Familiar routes may no longer be recognizable. It's very easy for the driver to become lost.
    • Response time may decrease. A driver may become confused by some of the vehicle's functions, such as when to press the brake versus the accelerator.
    • Driver may become confused by difficult traffic situations. These may require quick problem solving skills.
    • Verbal directions or suggestions may take longer to process. A driver with dementia cannot understand these actions in time to act appropriately or may even forget them.
    A person experiencing dementia usually will not recognize that his or her driving abilities have been compromised. Regular driving exams and physical exams will determine if it is safe to continue driving.

  4. Physical decline. Limitations caused by arthritis, Parkinson's disease, stroke, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions can decrease traffic safety.

    • Arthritis, Parkinson's and stroke. Individuals with these conditions experience physical limitations (such as decreased mobility) that reduces reaction time to difficult traffic situations.
    • Diabetes. Diabetics may experience a loss of sensation in the feet, which prevents them from applying appropriate pressure to brake and gas pedals.
    • Heart Disease. Individuals with heart disease may experience dizziness or lightheadedness, impairing their judgment and delaying response time.
    If you have a chronic condition, you should receive regular exams and get your doctor's approval to continue driving.

  5. Medications. Medications including, but not limited to, blood pressure medication, heart medication, anti-depressants and pain medication can make an individual drowsy, dizzy, confused or slow to respond. Any of these symptoms can interfere with proper driving techniques and make driving a hazard. If you have side effects to your medications, talk with your doctor about adjusting doses or finding alternative medications with fewer side effects. If you have side effects from such medications, you should not drive.

Maintaining Good Driving Skills

With a few simple steps, you can maintain and improve your driving skills, and potentially avoid accidents and traffic violations.

  • Plan your trip before you go. Review directions or maps in advance so you are familiar with your route and destination. There will be fewer distractions, allowing you to focus.
  • Give yourself plenty of time. You may make more mistakes when you are in a hurry. With extra time you can relax and focus on the road.
  • Avoid night driving, high traffic times and poor weather conditions. In these conditions, you may be less alert and perhaps more nervous, increasing the likelihood of an accident.
  • Leave enough space between you and the other cars around you. Reaction time decreases with age, so leave a good distance between you and the car in front of you. Don't follow other vehicles too closely. It should take about four to five seconds to travel the distance between your car and the other driver's. This extra space will give you more time to stop, which may be crucial in an emergency.
  • Wear your seatbelt. Seatbelts, when worn correctly, can minimize injury and prevent fatalities in traffic incidents.
  • Take a defensive driving course. These courses review the rules of the road and good driving techniques. AARP offers a Driver Safety Program for older adults online. In-person classes also are offered in most states. Drivers can find out more about this program and locate a class at AARP's websiteOpens a new window. In addition, most car insurance companies offer discounts on rates to older drivers who have taken a defensive driving course.
  • Get annual exams. Vision, hearing and other physical changes can affect driving. Annual exams may ensure driving safety and provide peace of mind.
  • Maintain your vehicle. A well functioning vehicle can improve road safety. Regular oil changes, window cleanings, lights inspection, brake inspection and tire inspection may help avoid problems on the road.
  • Evaluate driving periodically. It is a good idea to ask your family and friends to give you feedback on how well you are driving. Ask them to objectively evaluate your road awareness skills and reaction times. A regular driving evaluation through the local department of motor vehicles may also help to indicate safe driving skills.
  • Know when to say when. Communicate openly with friends and family about driving limitations. Be aware of hazards and safety issues that may cause injury to you or those around you. Set limits for yourself and know when it is time to ask for assistance.

Alternative Transportation Options

There are alternative transportation options that can help older adults remain independent, including:

  • Local senior transportation. Most county senior programs offer a local shuttle bus for seniors. This bus may transport older adults to medical appointments, senior centers, and other activities. Usually the program requires an application and a nominal fee. In addition, most transportation programs require 24-48 hour notice.
  • Taxi services.
  • Family or friends. Coordinate with your family and friends to make transportation convenient for everyone involved.
  • Local volunteer transportation programs. Some non-profit organizations offer transportation assistance to those in their community. Contact your local United Way or Area Agency on Aging to locate these organizations.
  • Home health aides. Most home health agencies offer transportation assistance through their home health aide program. A home health aide can be hired to provide transportation to and from medical appointments and various errands.
  • Delivery options. Medications, groceries, meals and other catalog shopping can be delivered. Delivery services can provide increased convenience and reduce the amount of time spent on the road. Contact your local senior services agency to learn about services in your area.

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