Driving and the Elderly
You can't judge drivers by their age - just look at teen-agers. They receive more citations and cause far more accidents than people in any other age group.
However, that doesn't make every teen a menace behind the wheel, and likewise, many seniors continue to be perfectly safe drivers well into their 80s.
At last count, there were more than 22 million licensed drivers 65 or older, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While age alone doesn't make someone a bad driver, some older people do put themselves and others at risk every time they get in a car. The American Geriatric Society reports that driving skills generally start to fade after age 75 (and sometimes as early as age 60). A recent study published in the Journal of Gerontology found that the number of severe crashes, driver fatalities, and pedestrian fatalities per mile traveled increases sharply once a driver becomes 65 years old. But turning 65 doesn't mean you have to put the brake on driving - it's just time to pay even more attention to safety.
How do I know if I can still drive safely?
Slowing reflexes, dimming eyesight, and fading hearing can all impair an older person's driving ability. Many diseases also increase the risk of crashes, including Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, alcoholism, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, sleep apnea, and Parkinson's disease.
In addition to these conditions, many frequently prescribed medications can also interfere with driving. According to a recent report in American Family Physician, older people are more likely to be involved in accidents if they take opioids, benzodiazapenes (a class of sedatives), tricyclic antidepressants, some antihistamines, glaucoma medications, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen), and muscle relaxants. If people taking these medications also drink even a glass or two of alcohol before driving, this could make their driving more risky.
None of these circumstances automatically renders an older driver unsafe, but if you have any of the illnesses listed above, or are currently taking medication, adding a few extra precautions couldn't hurt. Above all, be honest about your limitations and adjust your driving accordingly.
What steps can I take to stay safe?
One of the most important safety measures is to have your eyes checked regularly. As you get older, it's important to get annual eye exams both to keep your sight up to par, and to catch age-related vision problems early. (These can be general decreases in vision, but you might also suffer from reduced visual fields, so that side vision is tough, or from distortion of sight, which means that distances and objects may not be what or where they look.) If you have poor night vision, or are bothered by the glare of oncoming headlights, consider driving only during the day.
Avoid driving in bad weather, and make sure everything works like it should. Check wipers frequently, and replace them as soon as they start to streak the windshield. Be sure your turn signals work, dashboard indicators are accurate, and headlights are clean and aimed at the proper angle.
Minimize potential distractions by turning off the radio, not using the cell phone, staying out of heavy traffic, and sticking to familiar neighborhoods. If driving long distances such as to Florida or Arizona for the winter, stop and rest at least every two hours, and plan to limit driving to less than six or seven hours each day.
If you have a disability such as arthritis in the neck or shoulder, you may not be able to turn your neck well enough to see in reverse. Since that can interfere with backing up, have a "partner" driver look for you or even get out and observe.
Occupational therapists can help many older drivers, especially those who are hampered by weakness and inflexibility. In addition, the AARP offers a driving course called 55-Alive that can help you refresh your skills.
What are some other things I should watch out for, now that I'm an older driver?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has more helpful driving suggestions for seniors. For example:
• If drivers often seem to suddenly stop in front of you, pay extra attention to vehicles in front of you. Maintain a safe distance between your cars: one car length for every 10 miles per hour.
• If other drivers seem to be going especially fast around you, use the speed limit as your guide. Don't feel pressured to drive unnecessarily fast, but going too slowly can be just as dangerous. Stay in the right-hand lane when you can.
• If sharp turns are difficult to make, go as slowly as you need to and stay in your lane. Use your signal and be sure it's off after you're through the turn.
• If highway driving gives you more trouble than it used to, remember to stay in the lane that's going closest to your speed, and keep up with the rest of traffic. Avoid traveling during rush hour if you can.
How can I tell if I should stop driving?
According to the American Geriatrics Society, the following warning signs are hallmarks of an unsafe driver:
• Running stop signs or red lights without noticing
• Stopping at green lights for no reason
• Narrowly missing pedestrians or cars without realizing it
• Switching lanes or merging without looking
• Going the wrong way on one-way streets
• Getting lost in familiar areas
• Stopping in the middle of intersections
• Mixing up gas and brake pedals
Some red flags can also show up at home. An article in American Family Physician alerted families that older people who have trouble walking, climbing stairs, or performing heavy housework often struggle to drive as well.
If you're worried that you or a loved one may no longer be safe on the road, a family physician can also help assess a person's driving ability by testing vision, reflexes, strength, attention, and other factors. Contact your Department of Motor Vehicles, Veterans Administration, or vocational rehabilitation center for information on driving tests.
How can I help an unsafe driver?
If an older person you know is no longer safe behind the wheel, express your concern and urge him to take a driving test. Your state Department of Motor Vehicles is a good place to go for an evaluation. Some facilities use a paper exam to test driving knowledge, sign recognition and symbol matching. Others have computer software that simulates driving, and there's always the old-fashioned road test.
You can also help by offering rides, or researching what local public transportation exists. Check with the Agency on Aging near you -- there are many transportation programs especially for seniors. And some places, like grocery stores and health care centers, have vans or shuttles designated for seniors.
But be prepared for a confrontation: Many people resist giving up their independence and mobility. Since giving up driving without an alternative means of transportation can be a profound loss, help arrange an alternative such as an account with a cab company, teenagers who agree to drive for a fee or as volunteers, or a formal transportation resource. Getting people with Alzheimer's disease to give up their keys can be especially tricky because they usually don't realize their skills are slipping. Family members of Alzheimer's patients may have to hide keys, move the car, or disconnect the battery cable to keep their loved ones safe.