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When we look at the statistics for traffic accidents involving seniors, it is evident that there are far more fatalities than those in younger age brackets. According to research, there has been a 30% increase over a ten-year period in adults over the age of 65 that were killed in a traffic-related incident.
While there is a lot of controversy around whether seniors are safe to drive, there are many older adults that remain able to use their vehicles. Since there are now around 45 million senior drivers on American roads, it is more important than ever to ensure the safety of everyone.
Does Advancing Age Affect Driving Ability?
As we get older, we begin to experience physical impairments that affect our ability to function in the same way that we did when we were younger. This is completely normal, but it is important to pay attention to how this might affect our safety and that of others.
The eyes are often one of the first organs to suffer deterioration in later years, and yet they play an important role in staying safe on the roads. In fact, your vision is so important for driving that it is one of the key factors in determining whether a person is eligible to drive in the first place.
There are a variety of eye conditions that may affect your ability to see clearly, and this could make reading traffic signs much more difficult. In addition, you may find it more challenging to notice pedestrians and judge the actions of other vehicles on the road.
When your vision is affected, you may find that things appear blurry and that you are more easily affected by glare from other vehicle lights and the sun.
One of the most common conditions to affect the eyes is macular degeneration and this is a leading cause of irreparable vision loss. This can cause distortion of the eyes and can result in drivers having difficulty in more challenging situations on the roads.
Cataracts can cause the vision to become blurry, and while it is known that, by the age of 60, we require as much as three times the amount of light to see clearly, this becomes obsolete in people whose vision is so significantly blurred.
Another common eye condition that can affect the vision enough to make driving dangerous is glaucoma. This condition is caused by damage to the optic nerve and can cause people to lose their peripheral vision, which is essential in noticing potential hazards.
Your physical ability is likely to decrease with age, and there are a variety of ways that this can present itself. Things like weaker bones and decreased muscle mass can all play a role in how easy you find it to drive, but more serious conditions could put significant limits on your ability.
For example, arthritis has been proven to diminish your ability to drive with several patients demonstrating a partial loss of use of the upper limbs, among other things. In addition, people with arthritis may experience pain, particularly when doing seemingly normal tasks such as gripping the steering wheel. Moreover, it may become more difficult to apply the correct amount of pressure when using the foot pedals owing to pain or weakness. Some other arthritis sufferers find that pain in the hips and joints makes it more of a challenge to get into and out of the vehicle.
Many people also find that the pain and physical exertion associated with rheumatoid arthritis can increase their level of fatigue. It is important that, when driving, you remain fully alert so that you can respond to hazards quickly and effectively.
Stiffness and inflammation can make it difficult to move as freely as you would otherwise. This can result in difficulty turning to look out of the rear window, particularly when reversing and parking.
Parkinson’s disease is common in older adults and this neurological condition can affect you in many ways. One of the most significant, in terms of driving, is that you may experience tremors. Not remaining steady could affect how easily you can control the car.
One aspect of aging that not many people like to talk about is a decline in your cognitive ability. But this is something that must be addressed especially when looking at driving. For those in the early stages of dementia, it may still be possible to remain behind the wheel but as the condition progresses, this ability will decrease, studies have shown. In many cases, it can be difficult for the older person to accept, and the intervention of a doctor to ‘prescribe’ cessation of driving may be required.
Driving is a complex task, and it requires a variety of skills, including good memory, suitable awareness, and a good attention span. Unfortunately, these are all things that can be affected as we age, especially when cognitive impairments are diagnosed.
Even those with mild cognitive impairments have been shown to have experienced more than twice the number of driving errors compared to those without any impairments. Reflexes are affected, and the driver may not be able to remember certain safety aspects of driving.
These cognitive impairments are not limited to obvious things like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. They may also include conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and sleep disorders.
Your vision is important for driving but you must rely on other senses to remain safe and this includes hearing. If you have a hearing impairment, this can affect your ability to hear sirens and car horns from other road users which may alert you to danger.
Studies have shown that those with hearing loss may be more visually aware on the roads, but that is not to say that you don’t need your sense of hearing. But you will need to be more mindful. For example, many older adults with hearing loss forget to switch off their turn signals since they cannot hear them.
In certain situations, such as exiting a junction, you must be able to hear oncoming traffic as well as see it. If a motorcycle is approaching, it is more likely that a person without an impairment would spot it sooner thanks to the sound.
As our health deteriorates with age, it is not uncommon for older adults to rely on various medications. The problem is that many prescription drugs have side effects that can impact your driving, such as drowsiness. This is even more of an issue if you are taking several medications at once.
Certain medications may not have severe side effects, but when they interact with other medications, they can cause havoc on the body. While this is not dangerous per se, it can be an issue when at the wheel. Surprisingly, AAA reports that older adults are, on average, taking 10 medications at once.
Things like sleeping pills, allergy tablets, and tranquilizers are especially dangerous, and caution should always be taken when using these types of drugs and driving.
Tips & Advice for Safer Driving in Later Age
If you feel that you are still able to successfully drive then it doesn’t hurt to put additional measures in place to ensure your safety and that of others.
1. Get Your Eye-Sight Tested
Regular eye tests are an important part of health maintenance even before we reach old age. However, during this part of our lives, they become even more essential. Many older people do not realize that they have developed conditions such as cataracts, and these are sometimes diagnosed far too late, meaning that corrective treatment is unable to be given.
If this alone is not enough to warrant regular eye tests, then seniors might wish to consider the effect that poor eyesight could have on those around them.
For those who rely on eyeglasses or contact lenses, it is imperative to ensure your prescription stays up to date. If you feel that your vision is worsening, you should book an appointment with the optician as soon as possible. In addition to this, you should always make sure that you have a spare set of glasses in your vehicle in the event that your regular pair goes missing. These should also be updated as necessary.
2. Always Wear Sunglasses When it’s Sunny Weather
As we age, our eyes become more sensitive to glare, and it can take longer for the eyes to adjust after exposure to this. Studies have shown that in younger people, glare reduces vision by around 1.3, whereas this number shoots up to 2 for people over the age of 77.
To counteract this problem, it is a good idea to wear sunglasses while driving. However, this should never be done during hours of darkness to get rid of the glare of oncoming headlights or other artificial lighting.
There are different levels of glare with the worst being the blinding glare that comes from light reflecting off shiny surfaces like water. This can completely obstruct your vision and is incredibly dangerous when driving. However, the worst type of glare for elderly drivers is known as disabling glare which can also obstruct your vision.
3. Limit or Avoid Driving At Night
The glare from oncoming vehicle headlights is enough to dazzle even drivers with perfect vision, but if you have a vision impairment, this can be even worse. In some cases, the glare from street lights can be enough to affect your ability to see properly when driving. This is particularly true for people who have eye conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy.
It can be tempting to wear dark glasses to counteract this glare, but this will only serve to make your surroundings appear even darker at night. In turn, this will limit your ability to see potential hazards, pedestrians, and other vehicles. What’s terrifying is that, in a recent study, the vision of older adults decreased by as much as 38% at night.
4. Ensure Any Medication You’re Taking Doesn’t Affect Your Driving Ability
When you are prescribed medication, your doctor should tell you whether it will affect your ability to drive. However, over-the-counter drugs might not come with such an obvious warning so it is vital that you check the label or speak to your pharmacist. Things like allergy medications and cold and flu medicines can all affect your driving ability.
Typically medications that cause things like drowsiness are not suitable to be taken if you are getting behind the wheel. However, if you must take these medications, you should do so and avoid driving. If you feel unwell, dizzy, experience blurred vision, or are otherwise compromised, then you should also avoid using your car.
In any case, you should avoid mixing alcohol with medication and this can be an incredibly dangerous combination. You should not consume alcohol before driving at the best of times but when taking certain medications, this can literally be the difference between life and death.
Some of the most common types of medication that can affect your ability to drive include sleeping tablets, antidepressants, and pain relief drugs, especially those that contain codeine.
5. Get Your Hearing Tested
Drivers not only have to rely on excellent vision, but they must also have good hearing. In some cases, this means wearing a hearing aid. If you have found that your hearing has deteriorated then you should book a hearing test as soon as possible. Should you be told that you require a hearing aid, you should ensure that you always use it when driving.
There are some other things you can do to stay safe whilst driving with a hearing impairment. For example, making sure that your vision is 100% will help to make up for the loss of your sense of hearing. It is not uncommon for more than one sense to be affected at once, so be sure to get an eye test as well as a hearing test. You might also make use of wide-angle mirrors to give you a greater field of view.
It is also imperative that you avoid distractions while driving so that you are better able to concentrate on trying to listen to audio cues. This might include turning off the radio and limiting conversations with passengers.
There are more and more technological devices being launched for vehicles, so it is a good idea to keep an eye out for any that might help. Haptic feedback in the steering wheel is a great example of this.
6. Get Regular Medical Check-Ups
While your doctor may sometimes tell you things that you don’t want to hear, it is essential to pay attention to them. If they tell you that it is not safe for you to drive, you must heed this advice.
There are several things that your doctor might check to ensure that it is safe for you to drive, including your vision, motor function, and cognition. If any of these things do not meet expectations, you will be informed that you are not fit to drive, and while it can be frustrating, this is for the safety of everyone, including yourself.
7. Make Sure Your Car is In Good Condition
There is a saying that a person is only as good as their tools, and this applies to your car as well. If you are driving an unreliable vehicle with a whole host of problems, then there is an increased risk of an accident, even if you are doing everything else correctly.
It is important to make sure that your car receives a regular service and that any problems are diagnosed and fixed as quickly as possible. This may include things like faulty brakes and bulbs. However, it is important that you perform regular maintenance yourself as well as taking the car to a mechanic.
You should make sure that your tires are inflated regularly to maintain the correct pressure. Moreover, if you notice that the tread is beginning to wear, the tires should be replaced. You must keep an eye on the brake fluid, transmission fluid, and oil levels are topped up, checking these on a regular basis.
The windscreen must be kept clean so that your vision is not affected, and you should ensure that the windscreen fluid is topped up and that the wiper blades are in good condition. If there are any problems, they should be quickly replaced.
In addition to this, you will need to make sure that you are comfortable when driving and that your seat is in a favorable position. The seat should be situated so that you can comfortably reach the pedals and at a height that feels comfortable.
8. Use Car Aids to Make Driving Easier
There are some conditions that might not affect your physical or cognitive ability to drive but may cause you pain that prevents you from driving. In this instance, the use of driving aids might make it easier to get behind the wheel. This means that you won’t need to stop driving.
According to one piece of research, automatic transmission can be indispensable for people who suffer from conditions like arthritis. The same was noted when considering power steering, which drastically takes a lot of strain off the driver.
However, there are many other types of driving aids that can make driving more comfortable including a good steering wheel cover. These aids will provide you with better grip without the need to exert yourself; especially important if you have problems with dexterity. Moreover, a steering wheel cover will reduce pain in the wrists which is common with conditions like arthritis.
If you find that turning the steering wheel is tasking, a spinner knob will allow you to do this more easily. You won’t need to use as much strength, and your grip won’t need to be as tight.
For drivers who struggle with weakness in the legs, hand controls can be used to limit how much pressure needs to be put on the lower limbs. Additionally, a seat heat mat can provide relief from muscle or joint pain in this area.
If you have issues with your posture or alignment, using a seat cushion can help to correct and relieve this. It is important to go for the most supportive material, and you will find that gel or foam cushions provide the greatest lumbar relief.
Finally, for older drivers who are unable to maneuver themselves to see what is behind them, it is possible to install larger side mirrors with a wider field of view.
9. Change Your Car to a Smaller or Newer Model
Many people find that a newer car provides them with comfort and ease that an older model cannot give. Older cars may not have things like power steering, blind spot warnings, power brakes, radar detection, back-up cameras, cruise control, automatic lights, and parking aids, among other things. If you upgrade your vehicle, you may find that these modern functions make driving easier.
Moreover, you should consider the size of your vehicle. A larger car might prove difficult to park, and driving, in general, will be trickier. By choosing a smaller car, you are putting less strain on yourself and making the experience comfortable and safe once again.
10. Take a Driver Rehabilitation Course
If it has been a while since you passed your driving test, you may have noticed how things have changed. You may have forgotten certain things, and this can interrupt your ability to stay safe on the roads.
However, the simple answer is to take a driver rehabilitation course which will enable you to refresh your skills and improve your driving. In addition to this, there is also a range of adaptive devices for the car which you will learn about. These allow people with impairments to more safely take control of the vehicle.
Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS)
If you are unsure about your ability to drive, then it may be worth considering using the help of a driver rehabilitation specialist. This is usually an occupational therapist or a driving instructor, and these people can be easily found through the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.
Your specialist will assess your driving and can provide you with advice on assistive devices as well as putting your forward for exams to prove your eligibility to remain on the road.
While full details can be found on the ADED website, it is important to check within your state to find your nearest specialist.
DRS (Driver Rehabilitation Specialist)
As we have discovered, a Driver Rehabilitation Specialist is someone who can help you to stay on the road through a simple driving assessment. This assessment takes part in various forms; you’ll have an in-office assessment that looks at things like your vision and cognition while behind the wheel assessment looks at things like problem-solving, reaction times, and control of the car.
Your specialist will determine the kind of help you need and can provide you with a variety of assistive aids, as well as training you to use them. There are other courses and tests that you may be advised to take to improve your driving abilities. If it is discovered that you have a medical condition that might affect your driving, the specialist can also refer you to receive the correct treatment for this.
11. Stay Physically Fit
In order to improve your reaction times and strength, it is important to stay physically active. This will also help with your flexibility, which will ensure your range of mobility stays as good as possible. In turn, your ability to turn and look out of the rear window will be improved, as well as your ability to get into and out of the car.
There are several things you can do, and most of these are simple and easy to incorporate into your daily routine. Bicep curls and squats can improve your strength which will make using the pedals and parking brake easier.
To ensure that your coordination remains intact, you can practice things like lateral steps and soccer kicks.
Stretches can vastly count towards an increased range of movement as well as improving your flexibility. Simple things like back stretches and chest expansions are excellent.
Warning Signs That It’s Not Safe to Drive Anymore
As you get older, it is important to take note of things that could serve as a danger when using the roads. While it can be difficult to accept, it is vital for your safety and that of those around you. Here are some key warning signs that it is no longer safe to drive.
How to Tell Your Loved One When It’s Time to Stop Driving?
A very challenging part of having an older friend or family member that is struggling with driving is discussing the issue with them. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed and some people might not want to admit that they are no longer able to drive. But for their own safety, it is important to address the issue, albeit in the correct manner.
One of the best approaches to take is to avoid referring to their age and focus more on their skills. You can point out that their eyesight is hindering their ability to drive safely, for example, instead of just telling them that they are ‘too old.’
You should also make sure that your loved one realizes that you are only airing your concerns because you are worried about their safety and you do not want to see them hurt. It can also be helpful to bring along another family member to back your point without it feeling like an attack.
If you are going to suggest that your loved one ceases driving, you must be willing to help them remain independent and find alternative transport solutions. Taking away their vehicle can really limit a senior’s freedom, so try discussing the use of public transport, offering lifts where possible, and exploring other methods of getting around.
If your relative won’t listen to you and refuses to stop driving, then it is possible to alert the licensing agency about your concerns. This should only be done as a last resort as it could be very upsetting for your loved one. However, if their safety or that of other people is at serious risk, this may be the only solution.