Safe Driving and Aging: Safety Rules for Senior DriversUpdated Sept. 23, 2020
Getting older does not necessarily mean that you are no longer fit to drive. According to Federal Highway Administration statistics, there are more than 41 million licensed drivers in the United States aged 65 or older. Unfortunately, the physical and mental changes associated with natural aging can adversely affect driving skills and increase the risk of being injured or killed in a car crash.
Pre-planning is the key to staying safe and retaining your driver’s license as you get older. As we age, it is important to keep track of changes in physical fitness, eyesight and reflexes, while taking steps to resolve or work around any issues as they arise. This could be something as simple as getting an up-to-date prescription for your eye glasses or a more drastic action, such as having your vehicle fit with assistive controls.
Older drivers who do not pay attention to their physical and mental well-being may not realize they have a problem until their impeded driving ability leads them to commit a serious traffic violation, get into an accident or be involved in a collision. If related health problems are proven to be a primary cause of such an incident, your driver’s license may be revoked.
Though, losing your license should be the least of your worries if you are no longer fit to drive. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2017, people aged 65 and over accounted for 18 percent of all traffic fatalities; that amounts to 6,784 deaths.
How can aging affect your driving ability?
Age-related conditions such as arthritis, macular degeneration (vision loss) and dementia can seriously impact a person’s ability to operate vehicle controls, check the roadway for hazards, see well enough to maneuver, make sensible driving decisions and abide by the rules of the road.
A decline in eyesight may lead to:
- Difficulty reading road signs
- Trouble seeing pavement markings, other vehicles and pedestrians
- Greater difficulty seeing at dawn, dusk or while driving at night
- Trouble dealing with glare from headlights and sunlight
A reduction in muscle strength, flexibility or coordination may lead to:
- Difficulty or discomfort when turning to look over your shoulder
- More trouble moving your foot between pedals
- Difficulty turning the steering wheel
- Trouble operating the parking brake
Dementia or a general decline in mental function could cause:
- Confusion or anxiety while driving
- Slower reaction time
- An inability to multitask effectively
- Poor decision making and reasoning skills
- Poor reflexes
- Feelings of fatigue or drowsiness while driving
Safety tips for older drivers
Any older driver who has noticed a decline in their strength or mobility should consider talking to their doctor. Stretching, occupational or physical therapy, medication or a gentle fitness program aimed at older adults are all strategies which can be employed to improve your physical condition and keep you on the road for longer. Check out these safety tips for older drivers:
- Always wear your glasses while driving and keep the prescription up-to-date.
- See an eye doctor at least once a year if you are over 60 years old.
- Keep your mirrors and windshield clean.
- Make sure your headlights are clean, functioning well and correctly positioned.
- Maximize your view of the road by sitting higher in your seat.
- Choose a car with an automatic transmission, power brakes and power steering, as this will require less physical strength to drive.
- Check if your side-view mirrors can be re-positioned to enable a better view of the vehicle’s blind spots.
- Avoid driving at night and during rush hour.
- Stick to routes that you know well.
- Scan the roadway ahead and maintain a safe distance around your vehicle.
Do not be afraid to ask for help from your doctor or a trusted family member if you are having trouble driving. State authorities are keen to keep older motorists on the roads as they usually have a wealth of valuable driving experience and can be some of the safest drivers around! There are now dozens of different support organizations which provide older drivers with guidance and useful tools to help them stay mobile and independent for longer. Plus, most physical disabilities can be overcome with assistive devices and specially adapted vehicles.
Choosing the right vehicle as an older driver
Motorists of all ages must choose a vehicle that can meet their needs. This is particularly important for older adult drivers who experience age-related physical and mental challenges while driving, such as decreased strength, range of motion, flexibility and changes in vision.
When purchasing a new vehicle, older drivers have an abundance of assistive technologies and features to choose from. For instance, “lane departure” sensors track lane markings on the roadway and issue a warning if the driver is about to cross into another lane unsafely. Some of these systems will even auto-correct these dangerous errors by steering the vehicle back within the boundaries of the lane. Front, rear and side sensors are also available, which issue proximity warnings if the driver comes too close to another vehicle or object.
Drivers with limited upper body range of motion may benefit from a vehicle with an adjustable steering wheel, as this feature makes it easier to position oneself comfortably and safely while maintaining a clear view of the road. Heated steering wheels or heated seats are beneficial for drivers who suffer with arthritis in their hands or back pain, respectively.
If limited range of motion makes getting in and out of your vehicle an issue, choose a vehicle designed for easier access. For instance, many cars are built with wider, lower door openings, sliding doors or doors which open out to 90 degrees.
Selecting an appropriate new vehicle can significantly extend an older driver’s time on the road. Though, if you would prefer to make adaptations to your existing vehicle, there are plenty of options available.
Adapting your vehicle to improve comfort and safety does not have to be expensive or time consuming. Here are some easy-to-implement, low-cost solutions for older drivers:
Steering wheel coverscan improve grip for people with arthritis in their hands.
Pedal extensionsallow shorter drivers to maintain a safe position in the driver’s seat while still being able to reach the pedals.
Seat belt extensionscan help older drivers with limited mobility fasten their seat belt with greater ease.
Driver seat cushionscan reduce discomfort for older drivers with hip or back pain. They also position the driver slightly higher in the seat, allowing a better view of the road.
Larger, convex or multifaceted side-view mirrorsimprove visibility around the vehicle and reduce blind spots.
Other vehicle technologies
Many vehicles can be modified with assistive technologies designed for disabled persons and older drivers. For instance, you might talk to a driver rehabilitation specialist about:
Hand controlsto be used in place of the gas and brake pedals. This is an ideal solution for drivers who experience persistent weakness, pain or lack of mobility in their legs.
Push buttonignitions can benefit drivers with arthritis who struggle to turn an ignition key.
Left foot acceleratorsare a good alternative for older drivers with limited strength or mobility in their right leg, who would prefer not to drive with hand controls.
Support and education programs for older drivers
There are education programs available in every state designed to help older drivers adapt to physical and mental changes, or simply regain their confidence behind the wheel. The American Automobile Association (AAA) offer a wealth of useful online resources aimed at senior drivers, plus defensive driving courses which can be taken remotely or in a classroom environment.
Older drivers and drivers with disabilities may benefit from enrolling in a driver rehabilitation program with a rehabilitation specialist or an occupational therapist. Such programs are ideal for drivers who must learn to cope with age-related disabilities such as limited vision, lack of mobility and muscle weakness. Driver rehabilitation programs help older drivers to form new, safer driving habits and if necessary, operate a vehicle fitted with assistive technologies (such as hand controls or left foot accelerators).
License renewal for older drivers
License renewal restrictions for older drivers vary state-by-state. This may include specific procedures that must be followed upon renewal (i.e. the driver may only renew their license in person or must pass a vision test) and a shortened license-term whereby the driver must renew their license more regularly. The idea of jumping through extra hoops to retain your driver’s license as you get older may not be very appealing but remember that these measures are put in place for your safety.
The age at which a motorist qualifies as an “older driver” varies around the United States too. In some cases, drivers as young as 40 are required to submit to a vision test when renewing their license, whereas other states do not impose any restrictions on renewals until a driver is aged 80 or over.
A few state-specific examples are provided below.
Drivers aged 70 or over must renew their license in person but are not subject to a shortened license-term (the state’s standard renewal frequency of 5 years applies). A vision test is required.
Drivers aged 80 or over must renew their license in person unless a vision test is submitted electronically by a doctor or optometrist, prior to the license expiry date. They are subject to a shortened license-term and must renew every 6 years as opposed to every 8 years. A vision test is required.
Older drivers may renew in person, via post or online. However, drivers aged 81 to 86 must renew every two years; drivers aged 87 or over must renew every 12 months. A vision test and a vehicle control test are required for all drivers aged 75 and over.
Drivers over 40 may be asked to pass a vision test when renewing their driver’s license. Drivers over 62 will be asked to pass a vision test at every renewal. Drivers over 65 are subject to a shortened license-term and must renew every 4 years.
Full details of the license renewal process for older adults can be found on the DMV website and in your state’s driving manual. Like all driver’s license renewal policies, license renewal for older drivers is handled differently by each state. Make sure you know the procedure in your state, to ensure you remain fully-licensed and free to drive for as long as possible.
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