At age 78, Sheila thinks she’s a good driver and likes the independence of getting around town on her own. But, in the past year, she was in a minor accident and had several near misses. She’s noticed a few new dents on her car and doesn’t know how they got there. Sheila wonders how she can stay safe behind the wheel.
Have you been worried about your driving? Have your family or friends expressed concern? Changes in your health may affect your driving skills over time. Don’t risk hurting yourself or others. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have about your health and driving.
As you age, your joints may get stiff, and your muscles may weaken. Arthritis, which is common among older adults, might impact your ability to drive. These changes can make it harder to turn your head to look back, turn the steering wheel quickly, or brake safely.
Safe driving tips:
See your doctor if pain, stiffness, or arthritis seem to get in the way of your driving.
If possible, drive a car with automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, and large mirrors.
Your eyesight can change as you get older. It might be harder to see people, things, and movement outside your direct line of sight. It may take you longer to read street or traffic signs or even recognize familiar places. At night you may have trouble seeing things clearly. Glare from oncoming headlights or street lights can be a problem. Depending on the time of the day, the sun might be blinding.
Eye diseases, such as glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration, as well as some medicines, can also cause vision problems.
Safe driving tips:
If you are 65 or older, see your eye doctor at least every 1 to 2 years. Ask if there are any ways to improve your eyesight. Many vision problems can be treated. For instance, cataracts might be removed with surgery.
If you need glasses or contact lenses to see far away while driving, make sure your prescription is up-to-date and correct. And always wear them when you are driving.
Cut back on night driving or stop driving at night if you have trouble seeing in the dark. Try to avoid driving during sunrise and sunset when the sun can be directly in your line of vision.
As you get older, your hearing can change, making it harder to notice horns, sirens, or even noises coming from your own car. That can be a problem because these sounds warn you when you may need to pull over or get out of the way. It is important that you hear them.
Safe driving tips:
Have your hearing checked at least every 3 years after age 50.
Discuss concerns you have about hearing with your doctor. There may be things that can help. For example, a hearing aid might make a big difference. Just remember to use it when you drive.
Try to keep the inside of the car as quiet as possible while driving.
Pay attention to the warning lights on the dashboard. They tell you when something is wrong with your car.
To drive safely and avoid accidents, you should be able to:
React quickly to other cars and people on the road
Make fast decisions while driving, following the proper rules of the road
As you get older, your reflexes might get slower, and you might not react as quickly as you could in the past. You might find that you have a shorter attention span, making it harder to do two things at once.
Stiff joints from arthritis or weak muscles also can make it harder to move quickly. You may lose some feeling or have tingling in your fingers and feet, which can make it difficult to steer or use the foot pedals. Parkinson’s disease or limitations following a stroke can make it no longer safe to drive.
Safe driving tips:
Leave more space between you and the car in front of you.
Start braking early when you need to stop.
Avoid high traffic areas when you can.
If you must drive on a fast-moving highway, drive in the right-hand lane. Traffic moves more slowly there. This might give you more time to make safe driving decisions.
Take a defensive driving course. Organizations like AARP, American Automobile Association (AAA), or your car insurance company can help you find a class near you. See For More Information About Driving for contact information.
Be aware of how your body and mind might be changing, and talk with your doctor about any concerns.
Do you take any medicines that make you feel drowsy, lightheaded, or less alert than usual? Do medicines you take have a warning about driving? Many medications have side effects that can make driving unsafe. Pay attention to how these drugs may affect your driving.
Maybe you already know that driving at night, on the highway, or in bad weather is a problem for you. Some older drivers also have problems when yielding the right of way, turning (especially making left turns), changing lanes, passing, and using expressway ramps.
Safe driving tips:
Have your driving skills checked by a driving rehabilitation specialist, occupational therapist, or other trained professional. Driving programs and clinics can test your driving and suggest ways to improve your skills.
Update your driving skills by taking a driving refresher course. Some car insurance companies may lower your bill when you pass this type of class.
When in doubt, don’t go out. Bad weather like rain, ice, or snow can make it hard for anyone to drive. Try to wait until the weather is better, or use buses, taxis, or other transportation services.
Look for routes that help you avoid areas where driving can be a problem. For example, choose a route that avoids highways or other high-speed roadways. Or, find a way to go that requires few or no left turns. Left turns can be especially dangerous because you have to cross oncoming traffic and be aware of all the cars around you.
Ask your doctor if any of your health problems might make it unsafe for you to drive. Together, you can make a plan to help you keep driving and decide when it is no longer safe to drive.
Are you worried about your parent or other older family member or friend driving? Sometimes it can be hard for an older person to realize that he or she is no longer a safe driver. You might want to observe the person’s driving skills. For example, make sure that the driver:
Follows the rules of the road, including speed limits, traffic lights, and stop signs
Yields the right-of-way
Is aware of other vehicles, motorcyclists, bicyclists, pedestrians, and road hazards
Merges and changes lanes safely and stays in the lane when turning and driving straight
Can easily move the foot between the gas and the brake pedals, and does not confuse the two
If it’s not possible to observe the older person driving, look out for these signs that he or she is having problems at the wheel:
Has multiple vehicle crashes, “near misses,” and/or new dents in the car
Receives two or more traffic tickets or warnings within the last 2 years; increases in car insurance premiums because of driving issues
Neighbors or friends observe unsafe driving
Has anxiety about driving at night
Develops health issues that might affect driving ability, including problems with vision, hearing, and/ or movement
Complains about the speed, sudden lane changes, or actions of other drivers
Shares that doctor recommended he or she modify driving habits or quit driving entirely
Are you worried you won’t be able to do the things you want and need to do if you stop driving? If so, you’re not alone. Many people have this concern, but there may be more ways to get around than you think. For example, some areas provide free or low-cost bus or taxi services for older people. Some communities offer a carpool service or scheduled trips to the grocery store, mall, or other places of interest. Religious and civic groups sometimes have volunteers who will drive you where you want to go.
Your local Area Agency on Aging can help you find services in your area. Call 1-800-677-1116, or go to www.eldercare.gov to find your nearest Area Agency on Aging.
You can also think about using a car service. Sound pricey? Don’t forget—it costs a lot to own a car. If you don’t have to make car payments or pay for insurance, maintenance, gas, oil, or other car expenses, then you may be able to afford to take taxis or other public transportation. You can also buy gas for friends or family members who give you rides.
Visit www.nihseniorhealth.gov, a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health and wellness information for older adults. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to make the type larger.
National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services