Car and Driving Guide for Seniors

Driving is a form of independence. Knowing you can go wherever you want, whenever you want is freeing, and being able to take yourself places is convenient and necessary for many. However, sometimes age makes driving and owning a car difficult or even dangerous. Helpguide notes that while aging doesn’t necessarily make someone an unsafe driver, being alert to any signs that driving is becoming unsafe is key. Understanding how health and signs of aging impact driving makes the roads safer for everyone.

Statistics

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety notes that there are many senior - defined as over 65 - drivers, and their accident rate is comparable to that of 20-30 year olds, they are more likely to be injured or killed in accidents.

There are also more senior drivers on the road, according the Centers for Disease Control, who estimate that there more than 40 million licensed senior drivers in 2015, representing a 50 percent increase from 1999. Baby Boomers are aging, but they are not giving up their driving independence!

How Aging and Health Can Impact Driving Ability

Aging, and many of the health concerns that come along with advancing age, can impact driving ability in several ways according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, including stiffness, vision problems, hearing issues, memory loss or dementia, slower reaction times, and even various medicines.

The Oregon Department of Transportation also notes that while these issues do not impact every senior driver or every senior driver in the same way or to the same extent, they are issues to be mindful of when deciding to drive. 

Evaluating Driving Skills

How can seniors evaluate their driving skills? Being mindful of any health issues is the first step, but other procedures are in place to help seniors decide whether driving is the best option for them. Individual states require testing, but the American Association of Retired Persons notes that a formal driving assessment is also an option for seniors wishing to test their driving skills.

Another option for seniors is testing done by an occupational therapist, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association. Many hospitals offer this, and other types, of driving tests for seniors, Siskin Hospital notes. 

Safe Driving Tips

When seniors have determined that they can still safely hold a license and drive, there are still some safety tips that will help seniors be more careful and safer on the road. Mayo Clinic gives 7 quick safety tips, like avoiding talking on the phone while driving and noting any changes in medicine before driving, that will help seniors stay safe and continue driving longer.

The Department of Motor Vehicles also offers resources on safe driving for seniors, and notes that knowing your limitations is crucial. Seniors are, in many cases, able to retain their driving independence for many years by understanding and being self-aware of any limitations and problems.

Vehicle Safety Tips

It is important for everyone, no matter their age, to know how to operate a vehicle safely. It is also crucial for everyone to know what to do in case of a vehicular emergency. For seniors, this can be even more important, especially if they have time sensitive medical conditions or are ill. The National Fire Protection Association notes that paying attention to your car’s warning signs and immediately pulling over at the first sign of trouble can sometimes be the difference between an inconvenience and a catastrophic accident or fire.

In addition, the National Safety Council notes that distracted driving, like talking on a cell phone, texting, or even trying to read road signs - basically anything that distracts from the act of driving - results in huge numbers of crashes. For seniors, or anyone with medical conditions, these crashes can be even more dangerous.

Finally, the Red Cross gives a list of tips everyone, including older drivers, should use when driving, including:

  • Packing an emergency kit and keeping it in your car at all times
  • Paying attention to the weather
  • Keeping your gas tank full
  • Wearing your seatbelt
  • Making frequent stops
  • Pulling over to talk on the phone or if there is any sign of car trouble

These tips can make a huge difference for every driver, but for senior drivers - who often have medical issues and can be impacted more severely by accidents - they are essential.

Weather and Road Condition Safety

Why is checking the weather so important? It’s important for all drivers to know what type of weather they’re going to be driving in - especially if there is a chance of severe or unusual weather - but it can be even more important for seniors. Many types of weather, like rain, require faster response times than driving on wet roads. This may be a challenge for many older drivers.

In addition, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute, senior drivers are often distracted when nearest to other cars, including misjudging the distance between cars. In sleet, snow, rain, or any type of weather that causes cars to stop less efficiently, this can lead to an accident.

When to Stay Behind the Wheel and When to Stop Driving

The question of whether to continue driving or not is not just a procedural question - it can also be an emotional and challenging one for the driver and their family. NPR notes that the loss of independence, increased dependence on family, and family obligations can make this question harder to answer, and more fraught with emotion.

The Clearinghouse for Older Road User Safety notes that the conversation about driving should start early - well before any problems arise. Rides in Sight also provides a list of helpful tips for having the conversation about driving, and notes that moving from driving to not driving should be a transition, not an overnight move from independence to dependence.

Having the conversation with older drivers, and making sure older drivers understand the resources available should they become unable to drive, can help make the roads safer and keep our seniors safe and happy, with no feelings of lost independence.

Transportation Alternatives for Seniors

Depending on where you live, when a senior decides to stop driving and begins the transition from driving to turning over the keys, as discussed above, several resources may exist. Next Avenue notes that there are many alternatives, but the responsibility for driving older people often falls to their adult children. In many cases this is fine, but it is not the only option.

There are many transportation options, including rideshare services, volunteer driver programs, metro systems, and more. The Caregiver Space also gives a comprehensive list of options and resources, and notes that with the rise of ridesharing for people of all ages, it has become easier to find transportation options.

Whatever options are chosen, not driving doesn’t have to mean a loss of independence. Especially if a senior lives in a metro area or in an assisted living or senior living facility, it can be easy - and sometimes significantly safer and less stressful - not to drive.

Additional Driving Safety Tips for Seniors

The Golden Road notes that seniors can keep driving longer with a little preparedness and adaptation, as well as by following some basic rules, like planning your route beforehand and avoiding distractions. Consumer Reports agrees, noting that seniors can keep driving longer with regular checkups - both mental and physical - and more caution.

Whenever the conversation begins about not driving, here are some tips to stay safe and comfortable on the road as long as you drive:

  • Don’t be distracted
  • Plan your route
  • Ask for help when needed
  • Limit long trips, trips on the interstate, or trips in bad weather if needed
  • Discuss your successes - and any failures - with your loved ones and medical professionals

And most importantly, drive safe, drive cautiously, and drive conscientiously!