Safe Driving for Seniors

Senior couple on a road trip in a car together

In 2020, over 48 million U.S. drivers on the road were 65 or older, a jump of 68% in 20 years. This rise in older drivers means that about 17% of all traffic accident fatalities are seniors.  Many factors lead to car accidents for older adults, including typical age-related changes in vision, responsiveness, and reasoning; medications and diseases can also impact skills. So, it’s important to know when it’s time to stop driving—even if it means taking the keys away.

Here are some indicators to pay attention to if you are wondering whether a loved one (or yourself) should be behind the wheel.

Vision is a primary element to good driving. Declining eyesight is normal as we age, but there may be a time when it’s no longer possible or safe to drive. Each state has its own requirements regarding vision for non-commercial driving; you can check limitations for all states here. Some concerning indications of poor eyesight include:

  • an inability to read street signs,
  • difficulty in seeing marking like street lines or medians, and
  • distress in driving at nighttime due glare from other headlights.

It’s critical that individuals 60 or older have eye exam visits annually to test for various conditions and diseases that would impact driving vision, like cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy.

Reaction time is the amount of time it takes a driver to recognize, assess, and react to an object, hazard, or event. Drivers may take as little as 1 second or as long as 3.5 seconds to react—which can make a difference in outcome. If a person’s reaction time is too high, then lives are at stake. Consider the following when deciding if responsiveness is an issue:

  • if an individual easily gets confused by signs and directions;
  • if medications interfere with alertness or cause sleepiness; or
  • if the person has a hard time judging traffic so they can’t merge or turn easily.

Some reaction time problems can be alleviated by only driving during the day in clear weather conditions with a pre-planned route.

Physical fitness plays an important role in safe driving. While you don’t have to be in the same shape as a racecar driver who must deal with 200 mile-per-hour G-force speed, everyday drivers need to have agility, strength, flexibility, and coordination. Be on the lookout for these signs that person may no longer be fit enough to drive:

  • trouble rotating and looking over the shoulder,
  • inability to raise hands over head and/or pain in walking,
  • multiple falls in the previous year.

Physical fitness may be restored with physical or occupational therapy, dedicated movement through fitness classes, and adjustments to the car itself (powering steering).

Regardless of someone’s current condition, changes are likely to occur. Awareness of changes—whether by the person, from loved ones, or through health exams—is the key in keeping everyone safe.

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