Senior driver

Senior man sitting in front seat of car, smiling.

Ann Baldwin

How’s your driving? Even older adults who are careful, skilled drivers have developed some natural “roadblocks” to safety behind the wheel. According to AAA, older drivers have a high risk of having a serious collision; in fact, drivers in their late 70s have roughly the same number of injury-involved crashes as drivers in their early 20s. Physical limitations that come with age will impair any driver’s ability, starting with diminished vision. Let’s take a look…

The Eyes Have It

As you are well aware, our eyes change as we age, requiring us to wear reading glasses or bifocals. But did you know that people’s peripheral vision, or “field of view,” narrows substantially with age? A 16-year-old driver approaching a four-way intersection can effortlessly take in her surroundings. As we age, that field of vision narrows by two or three degrees every decade; a 76-year-old won’t even see cars stopped at the other stop signs! The take-away from this: older drivers must pay closer attention and turn their heads to look carefully in every direction. Be aware that you need to make an extra effort to see as much as you once did unconsciously.

Older drivers also need significantly more light to see than the youngest drivers. Over the years, our pupils get smaller and don’t dilate as much in the dark, which makes it more difficult to see. Your ability to withstand nighttime glare and read reflective road signs also decreases with age. If you have trouble seeing in the dark, follow these tips from AAA:

• When driving at night, be careful not to go so fast that you “overdrive” your headlights; adjust your speed so that you’ll have time to stop for obstacles just beyond your lights, and increase your following distance to at least four seconds behind the car in front of you.

• Rather than focusing your eyes on the road illuminated by your lights, keep your eyes moving and be alert to other vehicles approaching.

• And finally, if you’re blinded by an oncoming driver’s high beams, look down toward the right side of the road; you should be able to see the road’s edge and stay on course.

Health Issues Can Become Driving Issues

Many medical conditions common in older adults can have an adverse effect on driving ability. These include impaired vision, physical limitations (not being able to turn your head to check behind your,  or slowed reaction times), dementia, diabetes, seizures, and sleep disorders. The good news is that in many cases, drivers can consult closely with their doctors to safely get behind the wheel.

Another danger is that some prescription and over-the-counter medications can make driving dangerous. If you take any medications that make you sleepy or impair judgment, consult your doctor.

Keep Pace with Your Brain

Another “slow down” that comes with age is that our brains need more time to process information. Just as it might take you a few seconds longer to think of the answer to a crossword clue, your brain will be slower at making decisions behind the wheel, remembering where to exit from the expressway, and responding to guides like traffic signs and pavement markings. Your years of good judgment and decades of experience behind the wheel will help considerably—but ease off that accelerator to make sure that your brain and your body have time to react if necessary to avoid a crash.

Once you take a clear look at any driving limitations you may have—sensitivity to nighttime glare, for instance—you can take steps to compensate for them or work around them. That will reduce your risk of having an accident, and keep you driving safely for years to come.

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