For senior adults, the ability to drive may be the most important skill they possess. Not only does driving allow them to run errands and go to appointments on their own, but it supports feelings of control and independence that are so vital to seniors.

In fact, studies have shown a more rapid decline in cognitive function and physical mobility in seniors who no longer drive. In addition, seniors who stopped driving saw a significant decrease in the time spent seeing friends and relatives, and an increased prevalence of depression.

But, with some work, knowledge, and healthy practices, many senior drivers are able to stay safely behind the wheel for a longer period of time.

Maintaining the Ability to Drive

What are the key aspects to being a safe, competent driver?

Vision health. To read road signs and see upcoming hazards, drivers must be able to clearly and accurately identify what they are seeing. Some vision challenges for seniors include:

  • Decreased depth perception and peripheral vision, which allows drivers to judge the distance to objects and to be aware of objects not in their direct field of view.
  • Decreased “useful field of view,” which is defined as the ability to process visual information quickly using both eyes. Areas where multiple driving decisions need to be quickly made require the ability to rapidly assess what needs to be done.
  • Decreased contrast sensitivity, which occurs when objects are not clearly outlined and difficult to distinguish from a background (road sign, pedestrians). This makes driving particularly dangerous, especially in poor weather conditions that limit visibility.
  • Color blindness and cataracts can make identifying traffic signals or distinguishing when a vehicle ahead of the driver is braking somewhat difficult.

It is recommended that people 65 and older should see their eye doctor every year. Prescriptions should be kept up-to-date, and glasses should always be worn while driving. Driving at night should be reduced or eliminated if it is too much of a challenge.

Hearing issues. Not being able to hear horns, sirens, or other vehicles can be very dangerous for drivers. Have your hearing checked regularly, and discuss hearing loss and what can be done about it with a physician.

Overall physical health. Good health means less visual and cognitive decline, as well as the ability to physically react quickly to changes in traffic. Cardio and strength training are recommended to maintain fitness, but don’t forget flexibility especially in regard to driving. Stiffness decreases range of motion, which could mean turning the head to look left, right or behind for traffic could be impaired. Increased endurance and alertness translates into the ability to drive longer distances more safely.

The AARP recommends range of motion exercises – as well as those in coordination – to improve the body’s ability to respond to the physical demands of driving.

Brain health. Over time, seniors can lose some of their ability to quickly assess a situation and react. A diminished ability to store information and solve problems can also occur.

Eye-hand coordination—seeing, processing, and reacting quickly—are keys to safe driving.

Aside from aging, medications may affect the brain’s ability to focus and respond. Seniors should consult their physician if they feel this is occurring.

Also, the brain can be challenged by trying new activities. The National Institute of Health states that people who have undergone cognitive training had 50 percent fewer accidents than those who had not received the training.

There are also Driving Rehabilitation Specialists that use driving simulators to evaluate and rehabilitate drivers who have sustained functional loss due to accidents, trauma, age or medical conditions.

Road Tips for Senior Drivers

Here are few safe driving tips and suggestions for senior drivers:

  • Take a driving course. The AARP offers an online defensive driving course
  • Avoid traffic conditions that make you uncomfortable
  • Leave more space between you and the car in front of you
  • Start braking early when needing to stop
  • Drive in the slower right-hand lane
  • Don’t drive if drowsy
  • Bad weather tip: When in doubt, don’t go out!
  • Stay focused. Don’t use cellphones, text, search for radio stations, or eat or drink while driving.

Seniors Drivers are Among the Safest

Put away that old stereotype of senior citizens being the worst drivers. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers age 70 and older are now less likely to be involved in a fatal traffic accident than those 35 – 54. From 1997 to 2018, fatal accidents per licensed driver age 70 and older fell by 43 percent compared with middle-aged drivers.

Why did it happen? Here are what the experts say:

  • Older people have become healthier, which means less visual and cognitive decline
  • Better health means more seniors are surviving accidents
  • Senior drivers tend to be more focused. They don’t talk on their smartphones or text as much while driving.
  • Older drivers are much less likely to engage in risky behavior while behind the wheel

It will be difficult but necessary for seniors who can no longer drive safely to accept that fact. However, before that point is reached, there are ways you can maintain your driving skills and remain safely behind the wheel.

To find more tips for staying independent as you age, visit Bethesda’s blog.