Staying safe on the road as you age

Staying safe on the road as you age

As we age, our abilities to perform certain tasks change. This is particularly true when it comes to driving, with older adults being more likely to receive traffic offences and get into accidents than young people. According to the Transport Accident Commission of Victoria, drivers aged 75 years or over have a higher risk (per distance travelled) of being killed in a crash than any other age group.1

But does increased risk mean you have to give up being behind the wheel?

Everyone ages differently, so there’s no arbitrary cut-offs as to when you should stop driving. As a general rule, monitor your own health and if you feel your health worsening, consider limiting your driving time or giving up the keys altogether. Remember, taking a step back from driving doesn’t have to mean giving up your independence, it merely means you’re taking steps to protect yourself and those around you.

Factors to consider

Stiff joints and muscles

As you age, your joints get stiff and your muscles may weaken. These changes can make it harder to turn your head to look back, turn the steering wheel quickly, or brake safely. Movement can become particularly difficult if you’re suffering from arthritis.

For safer driving:

  • Talk to your doctor about any pain, stiffness or arthritis that might be restricting your movement
  • Drive a vehicle that offers an automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes and large mirrors
  • Keep physically active and exercise regularly to strengthen muscles and improve your flexibility

Slower reaction times

As we age, our brain connections break down, slowing our physical response times. Older adults seem to have excessive ‘cross-talk’ between the two hemispheres of the brain, and when motor skills require a strong focus from one side of the brain only, this cross-talk causes confusion and slower responses result.2

For safer driving:

  • Leave more space between you and the car in front of you
  • Brake early when you need to stop
  • Stay on the left hand lane on the motorway

Impaired hearing

If you suffer from poor hearing, noticing warning sounds such as sirens, horns and noises from your own car becomes more difficult. If you can’t hear the warning, you can’t respond appropriately.

For safer driving:

  • Have your hearing checked every three years, when you are over the age of 50
  • Discuss aids with your doctor that may improve your hearing
  • Keep the inside of your vehicle as quiet as possible
  • Familiarise yourself with the lights on your dashboard and pull over if you notice any change

Impaired sight

It’s normal for your eyesight to change as you get older, restricting you from seeing things as you used to. Poor eyesight can affect your driving in many ways, making it harder to see people, things, and movement outside your direct line of sight. You may find you have difficulty reading street signs or traffic signs and night time driving can be even more challenging.

For safer driving:

  • Visit an eye doctor every 1–2 years over the age of 65
  • If required, wear your glasses when driving
  • Limit driving around sunrise or sunset when the sun can be directly in your line of vision
  • Limit driving at night
  • Talk to your eye doctor about ways to improve your vision such as cataract removal

Medications

Certain medications can make you feel drowsy, lightheaded or have other side effects that may make driving more difficult. Pay attention to any warning signs on packaging and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have concerns.

For safer driving:

  • Read medicine labels carefully
  • Make a list of regular medications and talk to your pharmacist about any side effects
  • Don’t drive if you feel ‘out of sorts’ or lightheaded

Sleep

Older people produce less melatonin, making it difficult to get to sleep at night.3 Many diseases can also affect sleep, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease, incontinence, heart disease and indigestion difficulties. As getting enough sleep is essential to driving well, it’s important to improve night time sleep conditions as much as possible.

For safer driving:3

  • Aim for 7–9 hours of sleep per night
  • Keep active and stimulated in the day, and exercise more to promote deeper sleep
  • Limit caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
  • Expose yourself to two hours of sunlight per day
  • Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and cool
  • Keep a regular bedtime routine

Top 5 tips for safe senior driving

Ageing does not automatically equal a total loss of driving ability. Having paid attention to the above factors you can now consider ways to adapt the way you drive, modify your vehicle, or monitor the physical issues that influence your driving capabilities.

The main things to consider when driving are:

  1. Take charge of your health with regular check-ups, good sleeping patterns, regular exercise and a healthy diet.
  2. Find the right car and keep it in good working condition by visiting your mechanic for scheduled maintenance.
  3. Drive defensively – which means leaving greater space between you and the vehicle in front, paying extra attention at intersections, and avoiding distractions such as maps, GPS and mobile phones.
  4. Know your limitations and if driving on busy roads, at night or in poor weather makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it.
  5. Listen to the concerns of others. If relatives, friends, or others begin to question your driving capabilities, it may be time to take a hard, honest look at your driving.

Getting a professional evaluation

If you’re still unsure whether or not you should be driving, an occupational therapist or certified driver rehabilitation specialist can provide a comprehensive evaluation of the skills needed to drive. They can also recommend car modifications or tools to keep you in the driving seat longer.


Sources

  1. Older drivers: road safety for ageing road usersTransport Accident Commission
    http://www.tac.vic.gov.au/road-safety/safe-driving/older-drivers
  2. As we age, loss of brain connections slows our reaction timePsychCentral
    http://psychcentral.com/news/2010/09/13/as-we-age-loss-of-brain-connections-slows-our-reaction-time/18031.html
  3. How to sleep well as you ageHelpGuide.org
    http://www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/how-to-sleep-well-as-you-age.htm