Senior Driver's Safety
How to stay on the road as long as possible
Getting older or retiring doesn’t mean you no longer have responsibilities or errands to run. It doesn’t mean that you should just sit at home. As a senior, you have earned your independence and if you’re going to be on the road, there are a few precautions that you should take to make sure that no one can say you don’t belong there.
- Check the labels: If it says “Do not take while operating heavy machinery,” do not drive while taking this medication. Talk to your doctor about alternative medications that don’t affect your ability to drive.
- Consult with your doctor: Even if your medication doesn’t warn you against driving, ask your doctor if anything you’re taking can negatively affect you.
- Trust your body: If a medication is making you drowsy or lightheaded, don’t drive. Talk to your doctor about what the cause could be.
- Keep your prescription up-to-date: Even if you feel like you can see fine. Go to the eye doctor yearly to get your prescription checked. The stronger your vision the safer you are on the road.
- Visit the eye doctor yearly: An eye doctor has a better chance of treating cataracts and other vision impairments if caught early on. Ask your eye doctor if you need to schedule visits more frequently.
- Don’t drive at night: If you don’t feel confident driving at night, don’t. You can be an independent driver during the day, and ride with a friend, taxi or Uber at night.
- Wear sunglasses while you drive: Prescription sunglasses or anti-reflective lenses will reduce the glare of the sun while you drive and help you to focus on your driving.
- Make sure your car is ready to go: Keep your windshields, mirrors and headlights clean so that your view isn’t obstructed and make sure your seat is adjusted for maximum visibility on the road.
- Have your hearing checked regularly.
- Use a hearing aid if you need to.
- If it helps you to focus, keep the car quiet.
- Play music that relaxes you and helps you to focus.
- Keep an eye out for flashing lights, you may see emergency vehicles before you hear them.
- Follow your doctor’s instructions: Talk to your primary doctor about your driving. Recommendations may be inconvenient, but it’s better to be safe and late to your destination than not arrive at all.
- Stay physically active: Keeping your body limber can make it easier to turn the wheel, look over your shoulder and do other regular movements that you use to drive or park.
Visit an Occupational Therapist or a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist
An occupational therapist or rehabilitation specialist can help you figure out what about your body you should be concerned about when it comes to driving and how you can work together to overcome it. Different factors of aging can make it difficult for you to drive.
These are a few:
- Neck pain that makes it difficult for you to look over your shoulder when you’re changing lanes or looking right and left to scan the road.
- Leg pain can make it difficult for you to move your leg from the gas to the brakes quickly.
- Your arms may not be strong enough to turn the wheel quickly and effectively.
- Your reaction times may be slower.
- It may be difficult to effectively divide your attention across traffic, road signs and signals and pedestrians.
They can show you exercises that will make it easier for you to drive. If you currently aren’t driving because of a recent stroke or other health related reason, they can help you make a plan that will help you drive again.
Occupational Therapists and Rehabilitation Specialists can evaluate the skills you need to drive. Clearance from one of these third parties may be what you need to convince family members that it is safe for you to be on the road. They will also teach you strategies to sharpen the skills you may feel are growing weak and offer you a plan to improve your driving. They can also help you evaluate how long you should continue to drive.
They can also help you to make any necessary adjustments to your car. For example, a steering wheel cover may make turning and holding the wheel simpler. An occupational therapist can offer assistive devices that make it easier for you to drive.
You can find an occupational therapist through The American Occupational Therapy Association. They can help you find someone with Specialty Certification in Driving and Community Mobility. The Association for Driver Rehabilitation specialists can help you find someone who is a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist.
You can expect the following three things in your evaluation:
- A clinical evaluation
- A driving test
The clinical evaluation will be a review of your medical and driving history, what type of driving you do and how important driving is to you. You’ll be asked if and how you limit your driving, why you drive, if you’re the only driver at home and if you have access to alternative transportation.
The evaluator will test your vision, memory, judgement, strength, range of motion, flexibility and speed of response. The clinical evaluation is important because it covers things you may not come across in your road test.
The driving test will involve you driving a vehicle with a passenger side brake. The evaluator will rate how you handle the car, your problem solving ability, judgement and how well you negotiate traffic around you. The evaluator may ask you to drive a simulator instead of going out onto the road. This way, he or she can test your responses to sudden and dangerous situations without putting anyone in actual danger. If you’re not given a driving test, make sure to ask why not.
Your evaluator may suggest one of four options based on his or her findings:
- You can continue to drive as you are, or resume driving.
- You need some more time for healing, rehabilitation or retraining before you can resume driving safely.
- You can continue to drive, but with certain limitations, restrictions or modifications to your car that will help you be a safer driver.
- You need to stop driving soon or now. While this isn’t the ideal option, they will work with you to map out other ways to get around.
Keep in mind, your evaluator may be required to report what he or she found to your doctor or to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
General Tips for All Drivers
If you live in a busy city, you know that most drivers forget what they needed for the driving test as soon as their license is in hand. Below is a refresher for seniors and everyone else.
For every 10 miles an hour you drive, be one car distance away from the car in front of you.
So if you’re going 60 miles an hour on the highway, make sure that six cars fit between you and the next driver on the road. This gives you enough time to react to a deer running onto the highway, the driver in front of you suddenly breaking and the car in front of you getting into an accident. It might seem ridiculous to the drivers around you, but it’s less ridiculous than waiting 3 or more weeks for your car to get fixed at the shop. Add an additional car distance if it is raining, and two car distances if it is snowing, the roads are icy or if the rain is impairing your vision.
Scan the road ahead.
For the same reason, you should scan the road ahead of you to anticipate problems and increase your time to react.
Brake early when you need to stop.
Braking suddenly is bad for your breaks and bad for your tires. If you brake early you won’t have to worry about not having enough time to stop or slow down.
Drive in the right lane.
The right lane always moves slower. You won’t have to worry as much about people tailgating you, because they’ll have the left lanes to pass you on. Tailgating is dangerous and other drivers shouldn’t be doing it, but having the moral high ground doesn’t make you feel any safer when it happens.
Avoid rush hour and high traffic areas whenever possible.
Take the busy roads when all of the busy and cranky people are at work. Stick to side roads between 7-10 a.m. and 5-8 p.m. You’ll feel safer, and you’ll get things done a lot quicker, too.
Pay attention to traffic while making left turns.
Making left turns is a frustrating hassle. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it, consider making three rights instead. Three rights usually makes a left. If you do want to turn left, try to find an intersection with a left turn signal.
Find the right driving position.
Make sure that you can reach the steering wheel, but keep it a comfortable distance away from your chest to prevent airbag injury. Aim to keep it about 10 inches away from your chest. Raise the seat so that you have a clear view of the road. You can adjust the steering wheel itself, the height of the seat or sit on an additional cushion. Make sure that you can see your blind spots through the side mirrors.
Don’t drive under harsh weather conditions.
Strong rain, hail and tornado warnings are all good reasons to cancel plans and stay at home. Driving in these conditions impairs your vision and your control of the car. If you’re already driving and you get caught in these conditions, pull over to somewhere you can go inside to stay safe. Or to a safe place where you can wait in the car for better conditions. If you absolutely have to go out in poor conditions, make sure you leave early and give yourself plenty of time to go slow.
Plan your route ahead of time
Know where you are going before you get into the car. GPS is helpful, but it could point you in the wrong direction or malfunction. You don’t want to end up at the wrong location or have to switch from the left lane to the right lane at the last minute when GPS tells you to turn right. GPS is a great way to help you get from point A to point B, but use it as a reinforcement and as a reminder for a route you already know. Planning ahead keeps you from getting distracted by reading directions or looking at the map. If you need to, call ahead to where you’re going and ask for directions, just to be sure
Don’t get distracted.
Text messages on your phone, hunger and the radio can wait for a red light or until you get home. Don’t text, talk on the phone eat, or adjust the radio while you are driving. If the headlights from other cars are bothering you, look to the right side of the road to deflect the light. Use that side of the road as a guide, this way you can still keep control of the car, without jeopardizing your vision.
Pay attention in parking lots.
Parking lots are high risk areas for accidents while backing up. There are often many busy people who don’t know they’re walking behind a car that’s reversing or don’t seem to care. Children often run around while their parents are distracted loading the trunk with groceries or other items.
Be mindful of your speed.
Higher speeds increase the likelihood of a crash and decrease the likelihood of surviving ones. At a higher speed, a crash becomes more deadly because the energy involved in stopping the vehicle increases. The faster a vehicle is traveling, the farther it will travel before coming to a stop.
Don’t drive if you’re tired or angry.
Falling asleep on the road or experiencing road rage are very real and dangerous threats. Being angry can cause you to tailgate or cut off the person in front of you. Being sleepy can cause your reactions to slow and you could easily get lost if you’re dozing off and not paying attention. When you’re tired it’s easy to lose control of the steering wheel and fall asleep. Make sure that you have a good amount of sleep if you’re going to be driving the next day. Being tired can also pose an additional strain on your vision and hearing.
Take an elderly driving course or a defensive driving class.
Defensive driving courses and driving tests for the elderly can help anyone feel more confident behind the wheel. You may even get a discount on your driver’s insurance if you take one! The laws are always changing; a refresher course can update you on what’s new and what you may have forgotten. Check online, call your insurance company or look at a community education program for recommendations.
Think about general conditions that make it easier and harder for you to drive and adjust accordingly.
You may be able to drive perfectly well at night, on the highway during rush hour or with the sun glaring in your eyes. If that’s the case, by all means, carry on. Be aware of whatever causes driving to be more difficult for you and make the necessary adjustments so that you are comfortable behind the wheel.
Getting Around Without a Car
Aging affects everyone and at some point, it’s okay to stop driving. It’s up to you to decide when. If your family has expressed concern, if you’re missing exits, you’re dinging your car, or your body just doesn’t feel up to it anymore, it’s okay to stop. You won’t be stranded at home. There are plenty of ways for you to get everywhere that you need to go.
Current services, like Uber, taxis, van pickups and buses, can help you maintain your independence by getting you where you need to go without calling upon family or friends. If you’re experiencing any of these 7 signs, it may be time to stop driving
Signs you need to stop driving
- Problems with reflexes and range of motion
- You’re missing exits that you could once take blindfolded or you’re getting lost a lot.
- You’re drifting lanes.
- You’re forgetting to use turn signals or leaving them on after you’ve turned or changed lanes.
- You’ve had several near misses.
- You’ve got dents or scrapes on your car or other places, like your mailbox.
- You’ve gotten tickets.
Community shuttles/senior transit: Your local community may have shuttle service available, especially for medical appointments. Some medical facilities, such as those for veterans, also have transportation options for medical appointments. Your local place of worship may also offer transit options. Use the ElderCare Locator to find the phone number for your local office on aging.
Bus or Train: Contact your regional transit authority to get the bus or train schedule for you area. They can help you map out which routes will get you where you need to go.
Motorized wheelchairs: Motorized wheelchairs can be a good way to get around if you live in an area with easily accessible stores and well-paved streets.
Uber, Lyft or other ride-sharing services: Uber and Lyft are mobile applications you can download on your cell phone that you can use to call a ride to wherever you are and whenever you want. Check to see if either service is available in your area. Rides are typically less expensive than taxi rides and arrive quickly. If you only drive short distances, this may be a cheaper option than driving.
Taxi: Call your local taxi company, if you don’t have a smart phone and ask them to have a taxi pick you up at a certain time to take you wherever you need to go.
Family or friends: You can still ask your family or friends to take you where you need to go. They would rather take some time out of their day to help you, than worry about your safety and the safety of others on the road with you.
Walk or ride your bicycle: If you live in a town where things are close to your home, walking or riding your bike is the cheapest way to get where you need to go. Also, they’re great ways to keep yourself active and physically fit.
How to Stop Elderly Parents From Driving
When you tell your loved one it may be time to stop driving, take a moment to think about what driving means to you. Think about your independence, your autonomy and just what you would be giving up if you had to stop driving yourself. Society is built around the assumption that you can get to where you need to go at any time.
Driving is part of your identity as a productive member of society. You need transportation to meet friends, go to work, see your relatives and even get groceries. Imagine if you were stuck doing everything you needed to do on somebody else’s time clock. Keep that in mind when your loved one gets angry or frustrated as you explain how elderly driving can be dangerous. They might feel like they will become dependent, isolated, depressed and juvenile. Remember it when they fight you. It will help you be more empathetic and sincere.
These nine approaches should help you convince your loved one it is time to stop driving:
- Try having a respectful conversation about why it might be time to stop driving.
- Support your claim. It’s unlikely that your loved one will give up driving easily, and they might resent you for asking. Do everything you can to help them understand why you’re asking. Remind them of specific examples when they could have been hurt by driving. Were they late to an event, when they’re usually punctual? Have they had tickets lately? Have you noticed small dents or bumps on their car, fence, garage or mailbox? Have you been afraid while in the car with them? Have they voiced any concerns with you?
- Get an impartial opinion from a doctor or an occupational therapist. If the doctor doesn’t have any objections to your loved one driving, you’ll stop insisting. If the doctor does object, they have to stop driving.
- Help them find alternatives to driving. Set up a schedule between family members and friends during which you will happily drive your loved one where they need to go. It might be inconvenient for you, but it’s better than worrying about your loved one. Look at the Getting Around Without a Car section of this article for more advice.
- Get family and friends involved in the conversation. Don’t make your loved one feel outnumbered, instead show your family member that you all care and because you care, you have this suggestion.
- You can make an anonymous report to the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, or your local licensing authority about your loved one’s driving. The hope is they will invalidate his or her license.
- You can take away the keys so that he or she can’t take the car, or disable the car in some way so that it won’t move.
- Sell the car. If they don’t have the car, they can’t drive it.
- Call the police and ask them to explain to your family member why driving is unsafe.
Refer to these options only if you’ve exhausted the first five. These are a little extreme, but if you’re concerned about your loved one’s safety, you may have to resort to these measures.