Driving gives us a sense of freedom no matter our age. Especially as we get older, many of us see the open road as a way to maintain our independence. But as human beings, we all age at different rates and with that, our ability to drive safely also changes. Some drivers are just as acute behind the wheel at 80 as they were at 40, while others are better off hanging up the keys at 65.
Driving is a complex task, involving many systems both physical and mental, all of which need to be in top shape to handle the quickly changing environment of the road. It’s the reason why teenagers must take driver’s ed, why the DMV requires a license renewal after five years and why all drivers must pass a vision test before getting behind the wheel. But as we age, our bodies and cognitive abilities change and affect how safe we are behind the wheel.
For some drivers, it’s hard to gauge when your driving skills become affected, while it’s more obvious for others. Regardless of where you sit, this guide covers everything you need to know when it comes to driving during your golden years — including tips for staying on the road longer, knowing when to hang up your keys and the best ways to get around without a car.
How Does Age Affect Your Driving?
Impaired vision might be the most obvious reason our driving becomes affected as we age, but there are lots of other factors that come into play. As a senior, it’s important to take care of your body not only for your wellbeing but so you can stay safe on the road longer.
No matter your age, good eyesight is critical in preventing crashes. Since nearly all the sensory input you need to drive a car comes from visual cues, if your eyesight is diminished, so is your ability to drive safely. It’s the reason why all state DMVs require that you pass a vision test. For the safety of yourself and others, it’s critical that you stay up to date on eye exams.
Driving at night can become especially difficult as you age. Reduced visibility, glare and sensitivity to bright lights are some of the most common reasons older drivers limit or regulate their drive time. Many senior drivers also find they just don’t need to drive at night as often as they used to and stick to the roads during the day. Doing so can help alleviate some of the stress that comes with reduced nighttime visibility.
Hearing loss is incredibly common as we age — roughly one-third of Americans over the age of 65 have age-related hearing loss. This can be especially dangerous when you’re navigating traffic or even just driving around town. Not being able to hear a motorcycle riding up behind you or failing to pull over because you couldn’t hear ambulance sirens can prove dangerous to yourself and others.
Reaction time is one of the most important factors in being both a defensive and skilled driver. It allows you to respond appropriately to a road hazard without being involved in or causing an accident. Both diminished cognitive and physical abilities that come with age are reasons why your reaction time behind the wheel can suffer.
Physical and Mental Health Conditions
Staying fit as you get older has many perks, but you might be surprised how it impacts your ability to drive safely. Physical ailments like neck pain or stiffness can make it harder to look over your shoulder. Leg pain can make it difficult to move your foot from the gas to the brake pedal. Plus, diminished arm strength can make it difficult to turn the steering wheel quickly and effectively.
Staying in good physical shape doesn’t mean you need to sign up for a gym membership or get a personal trainer. Something as simple as implementing stretching exercises or following a home-based strength training routine can significantly increase your ability to drive safely.
Medical Conditions and Medication
If not managed properly, medical conditions can increase your likelihood of an accident behind the wheel. However, a medical condition doesn’t mean it’s imperative to stop driving. Many individuals who work closely with their doctor to manage their conditions are fully capable of staying on the road.
With that said, aging and an increase in prescription medication often run hand in hand. Some medications or combinations of medications can severely impair your driving ability, which is why many states have laws in place that make it illegal to drive under the influence of medication. Understanding the side effects of your prescription medication and your state’s laws can help you make safe choices on the road.
Cognition and Mental Health
With age, many drivers lose the ability to divide their attention between multiple activities. Your brain needs more time to process information, which can make it difficult to ignore distractions. Years of good driving habits and experience can help compensate for some diminished cognitive abilities, but there are also exercises you can do to keep your mind sharp.
- Keep learning: Read, join a book club, play strategy games like chess or bridge, write, do crosswords, pursue music or art, etc.
- Use all your senses: Try to guess the ingredients as you smell and taste a new food or dish. Give sculpting or ceramics a try and notice the feel and smell of the materials.
- Economize your brain use: Take advantage of calendars, planners, maps, shopping lists, file folders and address books to keep routine information accessible. Designate places for items that you use regularly like your glasses, purse, keys, etc.
- Repeat what you want to know: When you learn someone’s name for the first time, repeat it back to them in a sentence. If you put your belongings somewhere other than their usual spots, tell yourself out loud where you placed them.
- Make a mnemonic: Use a mnemonic as a creative way to remember lists. For example, the acronym RICE is used to remember first-aid advice for an injury (rest, ice, compression and elevation).
Severe cognitive impairments such as dementia will eventually inhibit you from driving due to challenges with reaction time, decision-making and awareness. However, like many other disorders, just because you’ve been diagnosed with dementia doesn’t mean you have to stop driving right away. Working out a plan with your doctor and family can help you determine when you should give up driving and how you plan to get around.
There are several warning signs of dementia that seniors and their loved ones should look for that will help you know when it’s no longer safe to be behind the wheel:
- Forgetting how to locate familiar places
- Failing to observe traffic signs and signals
- Becoming angry or confused while driving
- Often hitting curbs while driving
- Confusing the brake and gas pedals
- Forgetting the destination during a trip
Tips for Safe Driving
Every time you get behind the wheel it’s important to remember that you’re operating a dangerous piece of machinery, so regardless of where you fall on the driver spectrum, there’s always room for improvement. Honing your skills helps make the roads a safer place for you and others.
These tips apply across all age groups but become especially important as we get older. Safe driving can help you stay on the road as long as possible.
Stay on Top of Your Health
Earlier we discussed how physical and mental health can affect your ability to drive safely. This means staying active, getting your vision and hearing checked annually and talking to your doctor when new medical conditions arise.
Get Plenty of Sleep
We all know the dangers of driving while intoxicated, but driving while sleep deprived is just as dangerous. Leading neuroscientist Matthew Walker found that if you drive a car when you’ve had less than five hours of sleep, you are 4.3 times more likely to be involved in a crash. If you drive with only four hours of sleep, that number nearly triples at 11.5 times more likely to be involved in an accident.
Unfortunately, as we age, the quantity and quality of our sleep suffers — changes in your body’s chemicals and hormones being a major factor. For instance, as you age, your body produces less melatonin, which aids in sleep.
Practicing defensive driving techniques can help protect you from the many aggressive and distracted drivers that exist on our roadways, yet defensive driving involves much more than on-the-spot responses when you’re in traffic. Here are some things you can do to stay ahead of the curve:
- Leave adequate space for the car in front of you
- Pay extra attention at intersections
- Scan the road ahead
- Make sure you keep a consistent pace with the flow of traffic
- Avoid distractions such as talking on the phone, texting or looking at a GPS
- Always allow sufficient braking distance — remember, if you double your speed your braking distance becomes four times as far
Know Your Limitations
It can be hard to admit when our driving abilities change, but being honest with yourself and knowing your limitations on the road is key to staying safe:
- Limit your driving to daylight hours if it’s difficult to see at night
- Stay off freeways and highways if you’re uncomfortable with fast-moving traffic
- Avoid driving in bad weather conditions such as rain, thunderstorms, snow or ice
- If you’re uncomfortable with left turns, consider making three rights instead
Plan Your Route Ahead of Time
While GPS is helpful, it’s not always perfect. Wrong directions or a malfunction can be distracting while you’re behind the wheel. Know where you’re going before you get in the car so you can feel more confident and avoid getting lost.
Pay Attention in Parking Lots
Parking lots are high-risk areas for accidents, especially while backing up. Keep an eye out for distracted pedestrians on their phones, loose shopping carts and children who might be running around while their parents are busy loading groceries.
How to Stay on the Road as Long as Possible
Just because you’ve reached your golden years doesn’t mean you no longer have responsibilities or errands to run. It also doesn’t mean that you should just sit at home. Social isolation is a big problem for seniors who don’t drive or don’t have access to transportation — leading to poor quality of life and a shorter life span. Independence on the road is part of maintaining your regular routine and enjoying a healthy life.
Regardless, there are inevitable changes that go on within the body as we age that make it difficult to stay behind the wheel. Fortunately, there are many ways you can stay sharp on the road and be proactive about improving your driving skills.
Evaluate Your Driving Ability
Think about taking a driving assessment the same way you view regular wellness checkups. Not only can an assessment help you recognize and correct possible shortcomings, but it can also result in a specialized drivers’ training plan so you can stay on the road longer.
Driver 65 Plus is a self-rating assessment that features a 15-question exercise designed to help you examine your driving performance. After answering the questions, you’ll follow instructions to calculate your score and get information about your driving performance. You’ll also be able to examine your strengths and weaknesses with additional suggestions on how to improve your driving based upon your results.
Rather have a professional opinion? You might consider taking a professional driving assessment. These typically fall into two categories: driving skills evaluations and clinical driving assessments.
Driving skills evaluations: These are conducted by state-licensed and trained driving instructors. Driving skills evaluations are a relatively quick and inexpensive way to show your driving skills are adequate and up to date, while also revealing deficits that could be addressed with special training or lead to a recommendation for a clinical driving assessment.
- Best for: If you’re concerned that your driving skills may have diminished, you were recommended to take a driving skills evaluation by a physician or may benefit from supplemental in-car training.
Clinical driving assessments: Clinical assessments are conducted by specialists trained in the science of occupational therapy which permits them to better understand progressive medical conditions and life changes that can affect driving. Occupational Therapist Driving Rehabilitation Specialists (OT-DRSs) plan, develop, coordinate and implement driving services for individuals with disabilities.
- Best for: A broad spectrum of physical and cognitive disabilities such as dementia, stroke, arthritis, low vision, learning disabilities, limb amputations, neuromuscular disorders, spinal cord injuries, mental health problems and cardiovascular diseases.
Drivesharp is a brain training program designed to help drivers see more of their surroundings so they develop quicker reaction time and feel more comfortable behind the wheel. Through interactive exercises, you’ll be able to test your field of view and improve your ability to keep track of several objects at a time.
This online course was designed by AAA specifically for senior defensive driving. Roadwise Driver is geared towards teaching you how to adjust to age-related physical changes, how to positively affect your driving behavior and provides tips you can use to safely extend your time on the road.
AARP offers an online defensive driving course for all age groups with an additional section for seniors. This covers how age-related physical changes can impact your driving and how to make adjustments to compensate for those changes. In addition to brushing up on your skills, taking the course could result in some savings on your car insurance.
Adult skills audit
Offered by AAA and some local DMVs, the audit is conducted one-on-one with a state-licensed driving instructor that takes the driver along a route. This gives the instructor an opportunity to observe performance in various situations. These typically last around 90 minutes each.
Assistive accessories for your car
If a new vehicle isn’t in your budget, you may be able to have your car equipped with assistive accessories. Your doctor, local AAA club or an Occupational Driving Rehabilitation Specialist can lead you to resources for adaptive vehicle devices designed for in-car use, such as hand controls, pedal extenders, special mirrors and custom foam cushions for discomfort.
CarFit is a community-based program that evaluates how well your car fits you. You can sign up for a local event with experts that provide a 12-point comprehensive check of how well you and your car work together. If you find your car is no longer a fit, it may be time to consider a different vehicle. Some factors to consider when choosing a new vehicle might include:
- Safety features — such as seat belts and the positions and types of airbags.
- Ergonomics — design features that reduce operator fatigue and discomfort. These could include adjustable pedals and seats, automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes.
- Comfort — such as ease of entry and exit, legroom and size of control buttons.
- Value — this incorporates the total cost of ownership including price, operating and maintenance costs, as well as reliability, fuel economy and resale value.
Know When It’s Time to Hang Up the Keys
There may come a time when you need to hang up the keys, and while this can be disheartening at first, know that it’s okay to stop driving. Nowadays there are plenty of efficient ways for you to get from point A to B without relying on family or friends to take you places. Current services like rideshares, taxis, van pickups, carpool services and public transportation can help you maintain your independence.
It can be especially difficult to assess and address when you may be a threat to yourself and others by staying on the road. Many times it’s our loved ones who express concern, but there are some very specific indicators of when it’s time to retire your keys.
Driving behavior changes that should raise alarm:
- Confusion between the gas pedal and break
- Failure to yield or stop
- Frequent weaving or straddling lanes
- Difficulty merging into the correct lane of traffic
- Routinely becoming lost
- Inconsistent acceleration
- Delayed response to unexpected situations
- Having frequent close calls
- Hitting curbs when making right turns or backing up
- Getting scrapes or dents on your car, garage or mailbox
- Road rage, anxiety and stress
- Decreased confidence or reluctance while driving
Of course, there are more obvious signs like accidents, traffic violations and insurance changes that should prompt a discussion around if it’s still safe to drive.
Sometimes these incidents can be corrected with refresher driving courses and rehabilitation. If not, it may be time to give up driving once and for all. But before you hang up the keys, you’ll want to consider how you plan to get around.
Getting Around Without a Car
Knowing what resources are available to you will help make for a smoother transition when you decide it’s time to stop driving. Fortunately, there’s a long list of alternative options to choose from, whether you’re smartphone savvy or not.
Uber, Lyft or other ridesharing services: Uber and Lyft are mobile applications you can download on your smartphone to book a ride wherever you are and whenever you want to go without the expensive prices of taxi rides. Most cities now offer some kind of rideshare service, but it’s always good to check ahead of time if one is available in your area.
Community shuttles and senior transit: Depending on where you live, your local community or church may have shuttle services available. Additionally, most medical facilities, especially those for veterans, offer shuttle transportation for medical appointments.
Public transportation: Public transportation is always a good fall back option if you live near a transit station. Contact your regional transit authority to get the bus and train schedules for your area. Additionally, most transit websites offer maps which can help you plan out where you need to go.
Taxis: Taxis are another good transportation option if you’re not comfortable using a smartphone or you don’t have access to one. You can simply call your local taxi company and ask them to have a taxi pick you up and take you to your destination.
Motorized wheelchairs: If you live near easily accessible stores and well-paved streets, you might consider using a motorized wheelchair to get around.
Family or friends: You can still ask your family or friends that live nearby to drive you. They would rather take some time out of their day to help you than worry about your safety.
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 active and physically fit.
Drive a Senior
Drive a Senior is a free service provided to seniors who sign up and schedule rides ahead of time to get to medical and health-related appointments.
Envoy provides senior transportation services plus assistance and companionship. Envoy drivers go through a strict screening process which gives peace of mind to those caring for family members and loved ones.
GoGo Grandparent is a call-in service that helps individuals who aren’t comfortable with smartphones arrange rides. The service offers an extra measure of assurance to alert the rider’s caregiver where their loved one is going and who their driver is.
Additional Transportation Resources for Seniors
It may not be time to hang up the keys. The good news is that there are several organizations, associations and comprehensive resources dedicated to making sure you maintain your independence on the road as long as possible.
Resources for Seniors
National Aging and Disability Transportation Center (NADTC)
The NADTC focuses on accessible transportation for older adults and people with disabilities. It offers an information clearinghouse of materials and publications about a range of transportation issues.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
The NHTSA website offers resources about and for older drivers.
Clearinghouse for Older Road User Safety (ChORUS)
ChORUS serves as a central source of information pertaining to highway safety for aging drivers, passengers, pedestrians and cyclists.
Creating a Roadmap for Transportation Independence
This brochure, created by Eldercare Locator, helps older adults evaluate mobility needs, identify transportation options in their communities and develop plans customized to their unique circumstances before they give up driving.
DMV.org is a resource to help senior drivers better understand how age impacts their insurance options and coverage while staying mobile.
iTN America is a national network of senior transportation companies around the country. Their affordable options and specialization in assistance-oriented transportation make them a great door-to-destination option if in-app rideshare services are not located in your area.
As seniors, it’s easy to forget that driving was once a privilege. Driver’s licenses are no longer the badges of honor that we sported around as teenagers. Over the years, they’ve simply become identification that never leaves our person, holding a spot in our wallets next to our Costco memberships, credit cards and loyalty punch stamps. So, it can be difficult to discern when it’s time to make adjustments to our driving habits or stop driving altogether. Educating yourself about how age can impact your driving, potential risks and possible solutions are all monumentally important to your safety and deciding how long you stay on the road.