The American population is aging, which means more senior drivers than ever are on the road now, and their numbers are increasing. When it comes to safety, those older drivers get a bad rap. Motorists in their mid to late 80s actually have lower crash rates per mile driven than those in their early 20s; they have roughly half the rate of collisions of teenage drivers.
All that said, older drivers do face a number of unique challenges. Diminished vision and hearing, slower reaction times, changes in mental cognition, and the interactions of medications can all have an impact on driving ability. Here are a few steps that older drivers (as well as their younger friends and family) can take to help everyone stay safer on the road.
1. Get a driving checkup.
Have your driving evaluated regularly, much as you would visit a doctor for an annual wellness checkup. A licensed driving instructor can conduct an in-car assessment to identify shortcomings, then suggest ways to compensate for them.
Simple self-assessment can also be useful. Do you hesitate when merging onto busy highways? Does your mind wander when you’re behind the wheel? Have friends and relatives recently voiced concerns about your driving? Answering those and other questions can help you decide on any changes you might need to make to your driving habits. You can also take this handy quiz to evaluate your driving ability.
2. Train your body and mind.
Because driving is both a mental and a physical activity, it’s one more reason to keep your mind and body in shape. Simple fitness programs can improve the strength, flexibility, and endurance you need to drive safely. And brain-training exercises such as word puzzles can help minimize mental fog and sharpen your focus behind the wheel.
3. Check your meds.
Medications can have a big impact on driving skills. To find out what effects yours might be having, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
4. Adjust to slower reaction times.
Slower reactions are a natural result of aging. Planning your route ahead of time, avoiding busy highways, and allowing greater distance between you and the vehicles ahead can all minimize the need to make last-minute decisions.
5. See what you can see.
It’s no secret that your vision changes as you get older. While some vision problems (such as near-sightedness) can be corrected with glasses or contact lenses, others (such as reduced nighttime vision) are harder to address. Get your vision checked regularly, but keep in mind: Even if your vision tests well at a doctor’s office, it can still be reduced when driving at night. In that case, avoid driving after sundown as much as possible, and take extra precautions when you do.
6. Pay attention to your hearing.
If you have a hard time hearing horns, sirens, and other traffic sounds, you can put yourself and others at risk. Hearing-loss can often be treated, so be sure to get your hearing checked, and consider hearing aids as necessary.
7. Adjust your car.
Driving safety depends in part on making sure your car fits you. For starters, be sure you are positioned properly in your vehicle, with rear and side-view mirrors adjusted, your seat belt fitting low on your hips and snugly across your chest, and your seat in a position that allows you to easily reach the pedals and to see at least three inches over the steering wheel. When choosing a car, opt for features such as power steering and advanced driver-assistance systems such as lane keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control as much as your budget will allow.