How to Stay on The Road Longer and Still Drive Safely

At some point, as we get older, we’ll lose the excellent driving skills we had in our 20s and 30s. The stellar safety record we enjoyed in our 40s and 50s will also be gone.

Crash rates will start to rise in our mid-60s and early 70s, then accelerate after 75. We’ll be headed to the day when someone will tell us we can no longer drive.

fatal crash rates

Rate of motor vehicle fatalities per 100,000 people by age, 2016*

*Most current data available

However, there’s no reason to stand by and let that happen. Our independence is too important to us. By being proactive, there are ways we can extend our safe and healthy driving careers.

This guide is not written to tell a ‘caring someone’ what to look for before taking our keys away. It is written for us, to look at all the steps we can take to push that day off as far as possible, while still remaining a safe driver.

That goal takes two directions:

  • Keeping you in tip-top shape, and
  • Having your car support your evolving needs.

How to Be the Very Best ‘You’

As we age, one question should be asked when we visit our favorite, most trusted primary doctor: “Doc, is there anything going on that might now – or in the future – affect my ability to drive?”

The answer might be something generic about our vision, hearing and overall health, maybe even a comment or two about side effects or interactions of medications.

But it needs to be far more precise than that if we’re going to proactively keep in shape so we can stay on the road. For each factor, let’s look at:

  • The potential problem,
  • easy workarounds, and
  • what to do to hold the problem at bay.

Vision

The problem

90% of driving decisions are made based on information that comes in through our eyes. Starting at age 40, our eyes’ lenses lose the ability to change focus rapidly. Our peripheral vision narrows and more light is needed to make an impression on the retina.

We have more trouble seeing at night, the glare of lights can blind us, signs are harder to read and we may not see a car coming up alongside us.

Workarounds

  • Wear anti-glare sun and night vision glasses.

  • Increase the brightness of the instruments on your dashboard.

  • Keep the windshield, back window, mirrors and headlights perfectly clean.

  • Add a larger rearview mirror to capture peripheral movement.

  • Avoid nighttime driving: get a ride or use Uber, if you have a smartphone.

Prevention

Regular eye doctor visits to check on eyeglass prescriptions, eye pressure and the onset of cataracts or macular degeneration are a given.

We should also keep updated on technology advances, including full-range cataract replacement lenses, the tiny iStent that relieves glaucoma issues by draining fluid from the eye and ‘futuristic’ gene and stem cells therapies targeting macular degeneration.

Did you know?

Compared with age 19, we need four times as much light to see at age 45, and ten times as much at age 60.

Hearing

The problem

Hearing loss becomes more evident after age 50 and affects around 43% of adults over 65. (Yet only 25% wear hearing aids.) Good driving decisions require both visual and auditory input, including hearing a honking horn, a wailing siren or an accelerating car. We may hear danger before we see it, especially in cases that involve visual blind spots.

Workarounds

  • Keep windows closed while driving, especially if you wear hearing aids.

  • Do frequent visual scans around you to make up for not hearing horns clearly.

  • Keep the car quiet if it helps you focus.

  • Watch for cars backing out of spaces in parking lots; drivers tend to honk warnings.

  • Focus on any flashing lights, which could be emergency vehicles or warning lights.

Prevention

Having regular hearing checks is critical for us to catch and correct any decline early. Hearing aids are so small and discrete today: wear them! Also, a wax blockage is one of the most common causes of hearing loss, so keep ear canals clean.

Memory

The problem

We may be the last to know we are having memory issues unless we find ourselves getting lost, disoriented or even turned around in our own neighborhood.

Confusion and frustration can lead to anxiety, and our decision-making skills aren’t helped by being anxious.

Workarounds

  • Plan out your route ahead of time, even if it’s a familiar destination.

  • Set your GPS to ‘easiest route’ if that setting exists.

  • Enter your destination in your GPS before starting out.

  • Minimize distractions in the car so you can focus on driving.

  • Ask a loved one to watch for how you explain arriving late to places.

Prevention

General health and lifestyle affect our memory capacity. Tobacco, alcohol and drug use are all negative factors, as is sleep deprivation. However, staying active mentally, physically and socially is the best thing you can do for your memory.

Cognition and Comprehension

The problem

Cognition is when our minds ‘capture’ something. Comprehension is when we know what to do with it. So, both are critical for safe driving: we have to perceive external input, process it effectively and take the right action. Older brains do each step more slowly. It’s also harder to divide your attention effectively, or multi-task.

Workarounds

  • Avoid challenging left-hand turns by taking three right-hand turns.

  • Learn what intersections have left turn signals.

  • Leave more distance between your car and the one in front of you.

  • Minimize distractions like cell phones, radio and in-car conversations.

  • Avoid rush hour when heavier traffic means more instantaneous decisions.

Prevention

Always be learning! Use problem-solving skills to do crossword or jigsaw puzzles, play Sudoku, chess or bridge, learn a new language with internet-based Rosetta Stone or Babbel, take up a new hobby, anything that keeps your mind flexible. Take in brain-supportive elements like omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 from food or supplements.

Ever thought of brain-training?

Why not download Luminosity, Elevate, Peak, Fit Brains, DriveSharp or CogniFit onto your iPad?

Reflexes

The problem

Increased response time makes it harder for us to react fast enough to a crossing pedestrian, an oncoming car as we take a left-hand turn or a quick lane change on a highway.

Workarounds

  • Leave extra car lengths between your vehicle and the one in front of you.

  • Avoid left-hand turns or make them at intersections with left turn signals.

  • Drive in the right lane so faster drivers can go around you.

  • Find alternate routes that avoid highways.

  • Remove all distractions like texting, phoning, eating and listening to the radio.

  • Be especially cautious in parking lots to cars backing out, distracted adults and children.

Prevention

As we age, physical changes in peripheral nerve fibers and loss of brain cells slow our reflexes. However, maintaining a physically active lifestyle can slow down – or maybe even reverse – the impact of aging on our reflexes.

Flexibility

The problem

As joints become stiffer, we lose range of motion. Turning to check blind spots, urgent braking and jerking the steering to avoid an accident may no longer be possible. This can lead to dangerous driving, including when parking in large lots.

Workarounds

  • Outfit your car with safety features that cover blind spots, plus backup cameras.

  • Avoid tricky left-hand turns with no left turn signals.

  • Drive in the right-hand lane, so you don’t have to check over your right shoulder.

  • In parking lots, be especially aware of cars backing out without looking, and don’t be one of them.

Prevention

Do floor or chair yoga, increasing stretches as your flexibility improves. Join stretching or water aerobics classes at the Y. Integrate straightening-and-bending exercises of arms and legs into your daily chores. Find enjoyable activities that engage your full range of motion: garden, swim, bike or dance (tango or Zumba!).

Physical Strength

The problem

Your maximum physical capacity is between age 20 and 30. Sometime after 30, you start losing muscle mass and function. Sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, is noticeable after age 50 and can accelerate at age 65. We may lack the strength to press the brake pedal deeply. Or, we may be incapable of a hard steering wheel turn to avoid an accident. Other drivers will not accommodate us; we need to be able to drive defensively, regardless of our age.

Workarounds

  • Avoid heavy braking by not tailgating the car in front of you.

  • Watch for cars pulling out into your lane from parking lots.

  • Get hand controls for brake and gas pedals if you have weak legs.

Prevention

Exercise is the best way to avoid the loss of strength. Follow as strenuous a workout routine as you can, using weights or resistance bands. If joint pain stops you from exercising, take up water aerobics or isometrics (flexing and relaxing individual muscles). No matter what, get at least 20 minutes of activity a day: gardening, golf, tennis or walking (buy a dog).

Hand-eye Coordination

The problem

Hand-eye coordination is how your body takes visual input, processes it and directs the movements of your hands. It is critical for safe driving. It’s a complex neurological process that decreases with age, but can be slowed with specific exercises and activities.

Workarounds

  • Avoid highway on-ramps where your perception of other cars’ speed is critical.

  • Use intersections with left turn signals.

  • Avoid changing lanes and passing by staying in the righthand lane.

  • Stay home in bad weather where rain, ice or snow make driving harder.

Prevention

Look for activities that require coordination between your eyes and hands: sports like ping pong or basketball (dribbling and shooting baskets), or video games requiring precision and detail. Call of Duty, anyone? Use a YouTube tutorial to learn to juggle, first with two balls, then with three. Do 2-D or 3-D jigsaw puzzles. Color in adult coloring books. Exercise your eyes daily with ‘near-far’ exercises, or by using a vision therapy app like Vision Tap on your iPad.

Sleep

The problem

We need as much sleep after age 65 as we do when we are 20. We just don’t always get it. Causes include insomnia due to health concerns, anxiety or medication. Also, frequent bathroom trips, restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea or painful joints. Or we may ignore the fact that our body’s internal clock has shifted to earlier bedtime and wake-up hours. Driving when we are sleep deprived has similar effects to driving drunk: it’s dangerous and is a significant cause of car accidents.

Workarounds

  • Pull off the road. Take a 20-minute nap if your head is bobbing or eyelids feel heavy.

  • Drive during your most alert time of day, such as in the morning.

  • Avoid driving right after lunch; early afternoons are low-energy hours.

  • Get a lane-drift safety feature for your car and stop driving if it goes off.

Prevention

Check with your doctor on the effect of any prescribed medications and on any conditions like arrhythmia that might affect your sleep. Get sufficient exercise, so you are tired from your day. Establish a routine and stick to it. Made the bedroom the ideal sleep zone: no lights, no electronics and a cool temperature.

Side Effects of Medications

The problem

Many prescription and non-prescription medications for common ‘over-60’ health conditions include warnings about driving. “Do not operate heavy machinery” means your car, too. You may feel less alert, dizzy, drowsy or lightheaded, all of which can make you a less safe driver.

Workarounds

Don’t drive if you feel any unpleasant side effects from medications. Get a friend to take you places, call Uber or stay home.

Prevention

Read medicine labels carefully. Ask your doctor to prescribe an alternative medicine if one has a driving warning.

Do You Have the Very Best Equipment?

To drive safely as you age, you have to be in your very best shape. Also, your car should come as close as possible to meeting all your specific needs. The following 15 questions should tell you if it does.

  • Can you sit high enough to have full visibility over the hood, out the back using the rearview mirror and out the sides to side view mirrors, so all angles are covered?
  • Do you have auxiliary mirrors, like an oversized rearview mirror and wide-angle ‘convex’ side view mirrors, to cover all blind spots?
  • Do you have an add-on polarized day and night anti-glare visor?
  • When seated, is the steering wheel about 10-12 inches from your chest? (Any closer poses an airbag danger.)
  • Can you read the instrument panel easily?
  • Are all controls intuitive, easy to reach and not confusing?
  • Can you reach the pedals comfortably, or have them adjusted to fit you?
  • Would a textured steering wheel cover make turning the wheel easier?
  • Can you get in and out of the car easily?
  • Is the car easy to drive (i.e., automatic transmission, power steering and brakes)?
  • Does the car meet high safety standards in crash tests?
  • Does your car have at least front and side impact airbags?
  • Are your headlights, mirrors, windows and windshield clean and free of condensation?
  • Does the car meet high safety standards in crash tests?
  • Do your tires have good tread and are they filled to the right pressure?

And then there are some safety bonuses, where technology is your friend: ‘driver assistance technologies.’ Does your car have:

  • A backup camera linked to your dashboard that displays whenever you put your car in reverse?

  • Systems for forward collision warning and braking, front and rear cross-traffic warning and braking, lane-departure warning and blind spot detection?

  • ‘Parking assist’ to help you parallel park?

  • An automatic crash notification system?

  • Rain-sensing wipers?

Someday, automated driving systems will relieve us of the burden of driving ourselves. Meanwhile, it’s up to us to remain safe drivers if we’re going to stay on the road. But then, we also need to be ready to accept the day graciously when, finally, we no longer can.

More Resources for You

An educational program called CarFit holds free clinics where health professionals and trained technicians run a 20-minute check with you to ensure your car ‘fits’ you. (AAA, AARP Driver Safety and AOTA all support CarFit.)

CarFit findings

  • of seniors sit too

    close to the
    steering wheel.

  • of seniors have

    improper side
    mirror adjustments.

  • of seniors sit at

    the wrong seat
    height.

For expert guidance in assessing your need for specialized equipment and its selection, AOTA (The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. and ADED (The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists can help.

Sobering statistics

In 2016, 37,461 people died in car crashes. 6,764 (18%) of them were people over 65. You don’t want to be one of them.

AAA Senior Driving has a free tool you can use to assess your own performance.

http://seniordriving.aaa.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Driver652.pdf

AARP offers Driver Safety Programs in some areas.

http://www.aarp.org/auto/driver-safety

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