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Safe driving for seniors

Growing older doesn't mean you become a bad driver. But older drivers should be aware that, over time, physical and cognitive changes can affect driving skills.

Ever since we first held a driver's license in our hands, driving has been a passport to work, fun, shopping, movies, concerts, friends, family—every place that helps us maintain an active, interesting and rewarding life.

None of this changes as we age. Driving still gives us independence and freedom. Naturally, we want to preserve our driving privileges as long as possible. But aging can bring some changes that may affect driving skills. Fortunately, there are often things you can do to counteract these changes.

Age and driving ability

The skills of individual drivers of all ages vary widely. But, as a group, older drivers have more crashes than people in their 40s, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Age-related changes that may affect a person's driving ability include:

Joint or muscle troubles. Muscles get weaker with age. And joints may become stiff and painful over time. Both of these things can affect your ability to turn the wheel, turn your head to look over your shoulder, move your foot from the gas pedal to the brake, or respond quickly to traffic hazards and changing conditions.

Changing eyesight. Night driving, dealing with glare, adjusting to shadows and reading signs become more difficult with age.

Changing hearing. Hearing may diminish with age. Good hearing is essential for noticing horns, sirens and noises coming from your own vehicle while driving.

Slower reaction time. As we age, our ability to react quickly to other cars and people, hazards, heavy traffic or high-speed driving conditions slows.

A person's overall health affects his or her driving abilities as well. Certain health conditions that are more common in older people, such as Parkinson's disease and arthritis, affect driving skills. Also, older drivers take more medications than their younger counterparts. Many medications can cause drowsiness, sap energy or slow reaction time.

Maintaining your ability to drive

One way to help you stay safe on the road is to take a driving course designed specifically for seniors, such as those offered by AARP or by AAA. These courses cover some of the ways aging affects driving and offer hints about how to compensate for them.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other organizations also recommend:

  • Exercising at least five days a week to maintain flexibility and strength.
  • Having your hearing and eyes checked regularly.
  • Adding a larger rearview mirror to increase your range of visibility.
  • Reducing your speed and driving in the slower lane of traffic.
  • Limiting driving to daylight hours.
  • Driving familiar roads and avoiding rush hour.
  • Avoiding distractions in the car, such as cellphones and conversations.
  • Leaving more space between your car and the car in front of you.
  • Taking routes that avoid risky spots, such as dangerous left-hand turns across traffic.
  • Avoiding driving when you're stressed or tired.

Are you a safe driver?

Older drivers who can accurately assess their road fitness can adjust their driving habits to increase safety.

According to the NIA, the NHTSA and others, these are signs that you are not as safe on the road as you need to be:

  • Other drivers honk at you.
  • You've had traffic warnings from police or a series of minor accidents and near-misses.
  • You've gotten lost on familiar roads.
  • Cars and people seem to appear out of nowhere.
  • You have trouble staying in your lane.
  • You're not as confident about your driving as in the past.
  • Family, friends and others have said they are worried about your driving.

Alternatives to driving

Giving up driving does not mean you have to give up your social life too—but it could mean you have to find a different route to your destination. There may be more ways to get around than you think, including:

Hailing a taxi. Using taxis or ride-sharing services may be cheaper than paying for gas, insurance, licenses and other costs of owning a car.

Using shuttle buses. Senior centers, places of worship, retirement homes and civic groups often run them.

Using city transportation. This can include buses, trams and subway systems. Some offer discounts to seniors.

Asking for help from friends and family members. Offering to pay for gas or buying a gift certificate from time to time are good ways to say thanks.

Not sure about what transportation services or driving courses for seniors are available in your community? Find resources near you by contacting the U.S. government's Eldercare Locator at 800.677.1116 or online at eldercare.acl.gov.

reviewed 7/28/2019

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