One of the most difficult decisions in older age is determining when to part with your car keys. Advancing age brings an onset of conditions that affect the ability to safely remain behind the wheel of a car including loss of vision, hearing, strength, flexibility, and alertness. Medications can also impair driving. Although older people are more likely to follow safe driving practices such as wearing a seatbelt (75% of those age 70 and over), not talking on a cell phone while driving, and not drinking and driving (5% of drivers ages 70 and over who are involved in fatal accidents have blood alcohol levels greater than the legal level of impairment versus 29% of drivers ages 21 to 34), they also have more accidents per mile driven than drivers aged 25 to 60.
For most seniors, driving equals independence. When older drivers stop driving, they may experience decreased access to social activities, medical services, shopping and other services critical to independent living according to the National Older Driver Research and Training Center. Finding ways to help you be a better driver while you are able can extend the amount of time you can drive safely. Harvard Medical School's Harvard Health Letter provides the following suggestions:
Vision: Choose a car with easy-to-read gauges and add a wide rear-view mirror. Avoid night driving and driving in bad weather or during rush hour if possible. Get regular eye exams. Be sure to wear glasses with the correct prescription and look into getting anti-glare coating on the lenses.
Hearing is critical for cues like mechanical or tire problems, horns and sirens: Have your hearing checked and, if necessary, get hearing aids. Use additional mirrors to add visual assistance to help compensate for loss of hearing.
Loss of strength and flexibility: Exercise to increase your strength and flexibility. Take over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen to help with minor arthritis pain and stiffness. If possible, drive a car with automatic transmission, power steering and brakes.
Drowsiness: Loss of non-REM sleep, the restful sleep we need, is common with aging. Avoid driving after dark or after a big meal. If you feel drowsy, pull to the side of a road for a quick nap.
Medications: Ask your doctor if any of your medications, including those you buy over the counter, can impair driving. If so, find out if it would help and if your clinician can rearrange your medication schedule.
Even with these modifications, you might want to consider brushing up on your driving skills. The following resources can help:
- AAA offers a CD-ROM that measures eight physical and mental abilities shown to be the strongest predictors of crash risk for older drivers. These are available for purchase at local AAA offices. AAA also offers an online safety self-rating test called "Drivers 55 Plus: Check Your Own Performance."
- AARP offers a driver safety course online. The cost is $15.95 for AARP members and $19.95 for non-members.
- The Association of Driver Rehabilitation Specialists website offers a directory of driving rehab specialists across the country who can assess whether you can safely keep driving, and offer suggestion on adaptive equipment to do so.
At some point, most of us will need to give up driving. The National Institute on Aging Information Center suggests that if you answer "yes" to any of the following questions, it may be time to think seriously about whether or not you are a safe driver:
- Do other drivers honk at me?
- Have I had some accidents or "fender benders"?
- Do I get lost, even on roads I know?
- Do cars or people walking seem to appear out of nowhere?
- Have family, friends, or my doctor said they are worried about my driving?
- Am I driving less these days because I am not as sure about my driving as I used to be?
If it's time to give up driving, look into public transportation and local senior center transportation alternatives. You may want to consider moving to an assisted living center, which can provide social activities and transportation. Take advantage of shuttle services, grocery delivery services, medications by mail, and catalog and Internet shopping.
This information provided by the Group Insurance Commission.