The functional declines that affect driving aren’t universal. Specific abilities vary widely among older people. Drivers who stay healthy and learn to compensate for change can drive safely longer. If they drove safely in middle age, they’re likely to carry those habits into their later years.
What happens as we age?
1. Vision declines. Older eyes are less sharp, need more contrast and hate glare. The perceptual system finds it harder to gauge changes in angle size and motion, as well as detect patterns. In other words, it’s harder to read signs, drive at night, judge distances and back out in the parking lot.
2. Physical ability changes. People tend to have weaker arms and legs, achy joints, and lose some range of motion. Reaction time slows. For instance, neck arthritis could make it tough to check the blind spot; it’s harder (and slower) to slam on the brakes.
3. Mental changes take effect. Age alters our visual attention, working memory (mentally juggling several items) and attention.
If you’re 65 or older, consider regular driving check-ups around the time of your annual physical. After all, health can affect your driving and vice versa.
If you’re concerned about older drivers in your life, the NHTSA suggests a 3-step approach: Collect information, develop a plan of action and follow through on the plan.
1. Collect information.
Watch drivers on different roads, at different times, in different weather. Notice whether they play by the rules, handle lanes safely, yield and turn correctly, drive at the proper speed and don’t get lost on familiar roads.
Non-driving behaviors such as frequent forgetfulness, confusion and disorientation, loss of coordination, stiffness, trouble hearing, dizziness and difficulty following verbal instructions can also signal trouble behind the wheel.
2. Develop a plan.
Once driving is assessed, it’s time for “the talk.” Approach this with respect and sensitivity. Discuss whether drivers seem to be performing safely within their limits, and whether problems can be corrected. Can they adjust their driving habits? Can they find other ways to get around?
Drivers can also evaluate their own driving skill, perhaps using prepared self-assessment guides. Often they decide on their own to hang up their car keys for good.
The NHTSA says to write a plan to enhance independence and control while maximizing community safety. You may need to research other options, consult a driver rehabilitation specialist, consult the Department of Motor Vehicles, and sign up for a driver safety/accident prevention program – which can offer information while helping drivers to reduce their insurance premiums.
3. Follow through.
Because needs and abilities change over time, it’s important to “pull over” periodically and re-evaluate. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, require doctors to report medical conditions that could affect driving. Insurance agents sometimes are approached by a driver’s adult children, but agents are duty-bound to respect the privacy of policyholders.
Over the age of 55, good drivers can enjoy discounts on their insurance, varying by state, especially if they take safe driving courses. Training on checking blind spots and other age-related skill declines may help.
In summary, DWO (driving while older) can be a safe way to get around – as long as older drivers take into account their changing abilities, tune up their skills and heed the “yield” sign when it’s time to slide over to the passenger seat.