It’s natural to feel a bit uncertain about your driving abilities as you age. Maybe you notice a few more close calls, more minor scrapes, and dents, or some difficulty navigating. Maybe friends and family are showing some concern for your safety when driving.
Aging is a natural part of life, but it can come with a gradual decline of the various skills, senses, and reflexes that help us drive safely. And while for many of us, driving is a big part of personal freedom and independence, that safety — both for us and others — is important.
In this article, we’ll explore what happens to your driving skills as you age, and also some ways to prolong your safe driving years.
We’ll also discuss how working with a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist can help you stay informed and up to date about your driving skills, be as safe as possible on the road, and plan alternative transportation if driving is no longer a safe option.
What Happens to Our Bodies as We Age?
Throughout our life, our cells are constantly multiplying to keep our tissues healthy and functioning well. This process, however, starts to slow as we age. In turn, the tissues that those cells make up can start to deteriorate over time.
We see this in a variety of ways. Wrinkled skin, gray hair, declining eyesight, increased risk for illness — all are caused by this slow, natural aging process.
Though less visible, aging also causes our internal organs, bones, and tissues to slow down as well, and function a little less effectively over time. This probably isn’t surprising to hear, but it can have a distinct effect on your ability to drive for a variety of reasons.
How Aging Affects a Driver’s Cognitive Abilities
The brain is affected by age just like every other organ in the body. It may have decreased blood flow or decreased communications between neurons. Certain parts of the brain even begin to shrink after age 40, especially the frontal cortex, which controls memory, judgment, and problem solving (along with emotional expression).
The result is that drivers can have more difficulty paying attention, especially to multiple stimuli like traffic, weather, stoplights, and the radio. They might be more prone to mistakes when needing to react quickly or have a harder time with directions and navigation.
Even smaller aspects of vehicle safety, like proper maintenance and care for the car, are more easily forgotten as you age and can contribute to being an unsafe driver.
For more information on how aging, and specific conditions like Alzheimer’s, can affect your driving, you can see our article here.
How Aging Affects a Driver’s Senses
Similar to the natural cognitive decline that can happen as we age, our senses also tend to dull. When it comes to driving, the two most relevant are the senses of vision and hearing.
Declining Vision and Driving
A decline in your overall acuity, which includes the ability to read street signs or clearly identify other objects on the road, is obviously an increased risk when driving. A loss of peripheral vision, which is important to notice passing vehicles or potential obstacles, can also present complications.
Aging drivers can also be more sensitive to glare, or have more difficulty picking out objects with similar colors, such as a grey car during twilight hours or a bicyclist with a green shirt along a grassy shoulder.
Finally, conditions like cataracts or glaucoma can drastically reduce your safety on the road.
To learn more about how changing vision can present an increased risk on the road, you can explore our article on Driving with Vision Challenges here.
Declining Hearing and Driving
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, nearly a third of Americans between age 65 and 74, and half of those 75 and older have some degree of hearing loss. Hearing loss usually onsets gradually, and many older drivers may not notice it until it becomes a risk.
Hearing the horns of other motorists, sirens on emergency vehicles or the sound of a vehicle accelerating to pass can all be important factors to note on the road. Conversations with passengers can be harder to follow as well, providing a distraction from what’s happening on the road.
The natural decline of hearing and sight isn’t necessarily something to be alarmed about. Instead, these factors should simply be considered and adjusted for when continuing to drive at an advanced age.
How Aging Affects a Driver’s Physical Abilities
Another area where aging affects the body is in your physical abilities. Hand-eye coordination, needed for shifting manual transmissions or responding to hazards or obstacles in the road, can deteriorate.
Over time, driving can also become more strenuous, and simple tasks like holding your arms up to the steering wheel or taking longer drives can become a challenge. This is especially true in the case of joint pain or arthritis (which we touch on in this article), as well as any struggles with bladder and bowel control.
Finally, side effects from medications (like those for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer), can have side effects like drowsiness that should definitely be considered when driving.
What You Can Do to Prolong Driving as You Age
Stay On Top of Your Health
One of the primary things you can do to stay on the road longer is to stay fit and healthy through exercise, a proper diet, adequate sleep, and reduced stress. Avoiding tobacco and excess alcohol can also help slow the aging process and reduce your risk for medical conditions that could force you to retire from driving sooner.
Staying on top of your health with regular checkups and physicals is another important step. This way, you can talk to your doctor, catch any warning signs early, and take corrective action for your hearing and vision (like corrective lenses or hearing aids) if needed.
Refresh Your Skills
Another way to prolong your time on the road is to refresh your skills as a defensive driver. For many older drivers, it may have been over half a century since they originally learned the rules of the road, and it doesn’t hurt to have a refresher course with a private driving instructor to correct any bad habits or learn new tips.
Even if you don’t feel the need to have a formal defensive driving course, you can take steps to be more conscious on the road and improve your driver safety. Do you still feel comfortable and confident:
- Approaching intersections, or at left turns?
- Avoiding distractions like cell phones
- Maintaining the same speed as the flow of traffic?
- Allowing adequate distance between yourself and the cars ahead of you (especially in the dark, or on wet or icy roads?)
If not, you can find a wide variety of tips and resources online.
Choose the Right Vehicle
Another practical step you can take is choosing the proper vehicle for your situation.
An automatic transmission requires much less effort to drive than a manual transmission. Many newer vehicles also come equipped with enhanced safety features such as backup sensors and cameras, collision avoidance systems that brake if a possible impact is detected, and self-parking systems that will pull into parking spaces and even parallel park for you.
These automated systems can assist you when you need them and help you stay on the road safely.
Who Decides When a Driver is Too Old to Keep Driving?
There is no hard and fast rule saying that older adults must stop driving at a certain age. The key is understanding whether you still have the cognitive, physical, and visual abilities to safely operate a motor vehicle.
However, in this regard, it’s often good to get opinions from loved ones. They have your best interest in mind, and it’s both their goal and yours to help balance independence on the road with driving safely.
In Connecticut, the DMV does require that elderly drivers age 65 and older apply in person to renew their driver’s license every two years, which includes a vision screening.
The state also encourages physicians, police, and anyone else concerned about a driver’s abilities to file a report that may lead to the revocation of the driver’s license or the implementation of restrictions (such as no driving at night or on the freeway).
If you are concerned about the driving of an aging loved one, you can submit a report to the Connecticut DMV’s Driver Services.
Next Street Driving | Working with the Professionals
One of the best ways to make an informed decision about your next steps as an aging driver is to schedule a consultation with a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS). CDRSs are experts in assessing driving safety as you age, and can help you evaluate your unique situation and determine the right course of action.
You can learn more about The Next Street Approach below.
The Next Street Approach | Assessing Driving for Seniors
At Next Street, we take a personalized approach with each driver to understand how they can continue driving or plan for a transition away from driving.
Our assessment takes into account all three factors of aging — senses like vision and hearing, reactions and perception, and physical ability and comfort behind the wheel — and also includes a driving test.
Possible Outcomes After An Assessment
Depending on what we discover in our assessment, there are four main possibilities we recommend for your future as a driver.
If you still have healthy cognitive, physical, and visual abilities, it may be entirely possible that for now, you’re still just as safe on the road. In this case, we might offer a few tips or training, but overall we’ll recommend monitoring your driving for the years to come.
Restricted Driving Privilege
If you’re experiencing increased difficulty in certain areas of driving but are still highly functioning, it might be best for you to continue driving with some added restrictions.
For example, it might be safer not to drive at night or on the highway, or we might recommend some special training to compensate for deficits or break bad habits.
Adaptive Driving Devices
If you’re feeling the effects of aging more seriously, you may not be able to drive a vehicle normally but might instead qualify to drive with adaptive driving devices.
These can include steering wheel knobs to help arthritic hands grip the wheel better, pedal extenders to aid in reaching the gas and brakes, and more.
With the help of these devices, it’s often possible to extend your years in the driver’s seat. However, driving with these devices also includes certain criteria from the DMV to maintain your license, all of which the CDRS team at Next Street can assist with.
Retirement from Driving
Many aging drivers, however, will reach a point where it’s no longer safe for them to be out on the road. If this is the case, though, our CDRS team are experts in planning alternate transportation options to help you maintain as much mobility and freedom as possible.
Whether that’s the use of public transit, and ride services, driving services, or the assistance of family members, there are always options to keep you mobile and independent after retiring from driving.
Reach Out to Us
No matter where you are, and no matter where you are in the aging process, our goal is to work with you to help maintain your independence to move around town and your safety while you do it.
If you have any questions, reach out to us on our website, or call 860-483-7009.