September 26, 2016
Being an Older, Safer Driver

Being an Older, Safer Driver

by Berkeley Wellness  |  

Many people look forward to retiring and having more time for family, hobbies and relaxation. But as you get older, should you also consider retiring from driving?

A study in the journal Neuropsychology has confirmed that older drivers—even if they’re healthy—tend to make more errors that can put themselves, and others, at risk. In the study, Australians (age 70 to 88) drove city and suburban streets accompanied by an instructor and backseat observer.

The older the participants, the more mistakes they made—from failing to check blind spots and veering across lanes to not using turn signals and braking suddenly without cause. Nearly one in six drivers performed so poorly that the instructor had to intervene to prevent a possible accident.

How much this increases actual accidents is less clear. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that crash rates per mile do increase for people over age 70 and especially after 80.

But the statistics can be misleading, since older people tend to drive more on streets with intersections (not highways), where there are more accidents. Moreover, crashes involving older people are more likely to be reported, partly because older people are more likely to be injured. In fact, what is certain is that older people are more likely to suffer serious injuries and die in crashes than younger ones.

Twilight driving dilemmas

Driving safely requires good vision, hearing and mobility, along with quick thinking, all of which can diminish with age. Changes in eyesight can make it harder to see, especially if there is glare from bright sunlight or from oncoming headlights at night.

It may take you longer to read traffic and street signs. If you have hearing problems, you may not respond in time to sirens or horns. Reaction times may slow, so you’re not able to make quick decisions. If you have stiff joints and/or weak muscles, you may be less agile in turning your head to back up or check for traffic.

Medical conditions including cataracts and sleep apnea and medications that many older people take can also impair driving ability, as, of course, can cognitive problems. In particular, older people are more likely to be involved in crashes when merging and overtaking another vehicle and at intersections (where they may drive too slowly, increasing the risk of being hit by another vehicle).

They have more issues yielding the right-of-way, perhaps because they misjudge whether there is enough time to proceed or because they may fail to see the other vehicle. And as a recent study from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst suggested, over the years drivers may also simply develop unsafe habits—such as focusing only on what’s ahead of them.

Assessing your driving skills

Many states require older drivers to renew their licenses more frequently (as little as every two years) and often in person; some require a road test and/or other additional screening. California is one of a few states looking into tiered screening approaches in which drivers are given cognitive, vision and road-knowledge tests and are observed for physical limitations.If they fail, they must take an on-road test.

If you're concerned about your driving skills, there are also self-assessment tools that ask questions and provide feedback about abilities.Or, simply ask yourself some basic questions:

  • Do you rely on mirrors when merging or changing lanes instead of fully turning to check blind spots?
  • Do you have trouble seeing pedestrians or cars at night?
  • Do you ever have trouble braking?
  • Do you react slowly to a siren or flashing emergency lights on the road?
  • Are you receiving frequent traffic tickets?
  • Do drivers frequently honk at you?
  • Have you been involved in any crashes or near-misses in the past two years?

All of these are red flags.

Resources for Safer Driving

Several organizations offer tips and strategies for evaluating and improving driving strategies—which is especially important for aging drivers.