Medical Fitness for Driving
Being in Shape to Drive

Focus on The Driver: Being Fit to Drive A Car & Managing Driving Risks

Updated Dec. 11, 2020

Estimates provided by the vehicle insurance industry suggest that every motorist will be involved in at least four traffic accidents or collisions in his or her lifetime. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a car accident occurs somewhere in the United States every minute of every day. On average, one in every 16 of these traffic accidents will claim at least one person’s life.

Vehicle design, traffic laws and highway infrastructure (the design and maintenance of roads) play a big part in road safety. These three pieces of the puzzle are subject to constant study and scrutiny and will continue to be adapted and improved to suit our changing highway transportation system and maximize public safety. However, there is one more piece of the puzzle that cannot be overlooked: the role of the driver.

Despite all the work carried out by federal and state governments to make our roadways safer, our country still suffers over 37,000 traffic-related deaths each year. It turns out that vehicle design, rules of the road, road design and highway maintenance are not really the problem. Drivers themselves are the weak link in the system. The choices you make before driving and while driving affect the safety of the roadway environment. In fact, driver error is known to be the root cause of most crashes and collisions.

It is not only overtly reckless drivers who increase the danger for themselves and everybody else on the roadway. Sure, dramatically exceeding the speed limit, weaving across lanes of traffic, drunk driving and other “extreme” driving behaviors often lead to accidents and collisions but drivers who behave this way are relatively rare. The sad truth is that most people who cause car accidents consider themselves to be good, safe drivers.

Your role in creating a safe roadway environment goes beyond knowing traffic laws and fine-tuning your vehicle control skills. If every driver also paid attention to the way in which their decisions either increase or decrease risk, our Highway Transportation system would be a much safer place!

Are you fit to drive?

Part one of this module covers the importance of answering this question. If any factor – such as poor health, physical injury, tiredness, emotional upset or intoxication – impairs your ability to drive safely, you must not get behind the wheel.

Driving is a privilege that opens many doors and makes our busy, modern lives far more convenient. The idea of being without personal transport is so unpleasant to most motorists, that they are willing to overlook mental and physical impairments that render them unfit to drive. This oversight, whether deliberate or accidental, will dramatically increase your chances of being involved in a crash.

Being physically and mentally fit to drive

As a student driver, you will know how much of a challenge driving can be. While constantly observing and assessing the roadway around your vehicle, you must steer, control your speed, signal, shift gears and multitask in countless other ways. With practice, you will fine-tune your multitasking skills and become a proficient driver – though that does not mean you will always be a proficient driver from that point onward.

Becoming ill or sustaining a physical injury may leave you unable to think clearly, perceive the roadway around you, operate in-car controls or react quickly enough to impending dangers. Even a minor cold or a sprained wrist will adversely affect your driving skills and increase the risk you face while operating your vehicle. You must learn to identify these issues when they arise and realistically consider their impact on you as a driver. As the roadway is an inherently dangerous place, the convenience of being able to hop into your car is not worth the increase in risk you will be subjected to while mentally or physically impaired. If in doubt, do not drive.

Permanent or long-term impairments

For older adults and people who live with long-term health conditions or disabilities, “fitness to drive” is a constant issue. Though, it does not have to be a deal-breaker. It is important to pay attention to changes in physical ability, eyesight and cognition as you age so that steps can be taken to maintain your safety behind the wheel. Sadly, older adults are among the most at-risk drivers.  Having a medical condition or disability does not necessarily exclude you from driving – incredible adaptations can be made to vehicles these days! Though, it is important to be realistic about the way your symptoms affect your ability to drive, discuss the issue with your general practitioner and declare any relevant health problems when you apply for a license.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

All drivers must be aware of the risk posed by their vehicle’s carbon monoxide emissions. If you drive an old or poorly maintained car, the vehicle itself could make you sick and unfit to drive. Even modern, regularly serviced vehicles can pose a threat if you leave the engine running in an enclosed space where fumes cannot escape.

Low-level carbon monoxide poisoning is subtle but can have a devastating accumulative effect on your health over time. With heavy or prolonged exposure to dangerous exhaust fumes, you could become confused, sick or even pass out at the wheel.

Driving while physically or mentally fatigued

Driver fatigue is an enormous problem for every road user in the United States. Despite what many of us like to believe, we are not super-human and without adequate rest, our hectic lifestyles may render us unfit to drive. Driving while fatigued is an issue that affects millions of drivers every day, though it is a particular danger for novice, teenage drivers – find out why in “Fatigue Risk Factors”.

Sleep deprivation, excessive mental or physical work and illness can all lead to fatigue. Essentially, any situation which off-sets your work-rest balance will leave your body and mind not functioning as well as it would under normal conditions. This can present itself as drowsiness, disturbed vision, physical aches and pains, an inability to concentrate, decreased reasoning ability and poor judgment. It goes without saying that attempting to drive under these conditions would be extremely dangerous, yet plenty of motorists do it every day.

Fatigued driving is a contributing factor in thousands of traffic-related deaths each year. Working through this section will teach you how to identify fatigue in yourself when it occurs and make sensible decisions about whether to drive. We also include vital fatigue avoidance techniques and coping strategies, which can help keep you safe if tiredness sets in while you’re driving.

Highway hypnosis and velocitation

Fatigued driving can lead to a dangerous type of inattentiveness known as “highway hypnosis”. When your cognition is impaired by tiredness, you are more likely to zone out behind the wheel and lose conscious connection with the driving task. In this condition, you will not be able to perceive or react to dangers on the roadway and could easily fall asleep at the wheel.

Velocitation is another phenomenon that can occur when a driver is fatigued or not paying enough attention to the task at hand. When experiencing velocitation, you will not have an accurate gauge of how fast you are traveling; you may accidentally accelerate beyond a safe speed or fail to slow down enough when road conditions change. The final article in this section will teach you how to avoid falling victim to highway hypnosis and velocitation while driving.

Reducing driving risks

Driving is a risky activity. Every time you slip into the driver’s seat you are exposing yourself to the risk of being injured or killed in a traffic accident. Of course, you could say that stepping outside your home exposes you to the risk of being struck by lightning – but not all risks are created equal. An average of 51 Americans are killed by lightning strikes every year, while some 37,000 or so are killed in traffic collisions.

The level of risk you face while driving is not constant; it fluctuates depending on the situation on the roadway at any given time. In any driving environment, there are hundreds of different factors that influence risk, such as the condition of the road surface, weather conditions and the behavior of other road users. The choices you make while driving will either increase risk or work to lessen it, making the roadway safer for everybody. In this section, you will learn how to identify dangers and minimize the risks involved in driving.

Responsible attitude

It is physically impossible to be a safe driver without having a responsible attitude toward decision making. You cannot control outside influences like the weather or the volume of traffic on a road, but you absolutely can control your own behavior. Every decision you make will tip the scales one way or another, creating a riskier or less dangerous environment. Which will you choose?

Driving practices that increase risk

Tailgating, driving under the influence of alcohol, speeding, texting while driving and disrupting the flow of traffic are all actions that add risk to a driving situation and make it more likely that something bad will happen. Some of these actions are more risk-inducing than others, though they must all be avoided, at all costs. Accidents and collisions which occur as a result of these practices are completely preventable, as each one can be attributed to nothing more than a bad decision on behalf of the driver.

Increased risk for novice drivers

When you first get your driver’s license, the odds are stacked against you. Simply being young and inexperienced increases the risk you face on the roadway. This is an issue we explore in detail in this section of the program.

It is important to understand the heightened danger you experience as a teenage driver so that you can avoid taking any unnecessarily risk-inducing action which would further increase your chances of having an accident. Through lack of behind-the-wheel experience, teenage recklessness, peer pressure and the inability to accurately assess risk, you face a significant threat of injury and death while driving. Do not add to that threat by making irresponsible and perfectly avoidable choices.

Creating a safer driving environment

Just as you can increase risk with dangerous driving behavior, you can create a safer environment by making the right choices. The risk-minimizing strategies that every driver must adopt include maintaining space around your vehicle, wearing a seat belt and driving at a speed that is appropriate for current conditions. Find out what else you can do to minimize your chances of being involved in a traffic accident in “Strategies to Minimize Driving Risk”.

Consequences of risky behavior

While many unsuspecting motorists end up seriously injured or dead as a result of risky driving behavior, these are not the only negative consequences that can result from making the wrong choices. The consequences of dangerous driving are always negative and can be vast, even if you manage to escape an incident without any life-changing or life-ending injuries. “The Driver” finishes with a sobering look at the financial, physical, mental and emotional impact of engaging in dangerous driving behavior.

What type of driver will you be?

The information provided in this section of the course gives you everything you need to make the right driving decisions. Most motorists believe themselves to be competent drivers but very few truly come up to scratch. You can choose to create a safer Highway Transportation System for yourself and every other road user, simply by understanding driving risks, avoiding risk-inducing behavior and making sure you are always fit to drive.

Choosing what kind of driver you will be is not a decision you make once; it is a lifestyle choice that must be consciously made, every day, for the rest of your driving life. To be a safe driver, you must pay attention to your habits and weaknesses, question your decisions and look at every situation critically before acting. Let’s get your journey underway by finding out what it means to be “fit to drive”.

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