Safety Tips for Senior Drivers
How to tune up your driving skills and improve your safety on the road
Worried your driving is getting worse as you age? It happens. But until the time comes to put down the car keys for good, there are steps you can take to turn that shaky driving into safer driving.
Statistics show the rate of accidents per miles driven stays about the same from age 25 to 75, then starts to increase, says Daniel Cox, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Virginia Driving Safety Laboratory at the University of Virginia, where seniors and others can get their skills tested in a simulator.
But age and its effect on your driving ability varies widely by individual, Cox says. “Some people age at a faster or slower rate,” he says.
Put your driving ability to the test
As you get into your 60s, it’s a good idea to look at your physical and mental abilities and any changes in your driving, Cox says.
Here are three ways to get an objective evaluation of your skills:
- Take a self-assessment test. Roadwise Review Online, from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, is a free online tool that allows seniors to test an array of mental and physical abilities, such leg strength, mobility, head and neck flexibility, memory and vision. “You can test some of the basic skills necessary for safe driving,” Cox says. Take the test every six months, and compare current and previous results, he says.
- Get checked by a driving instructor. Alternatively, you can get a professional assessment of your driving from a driving instructor certified by the state where you live. This can cost from $100 to $200, according to AAA. If you need work on any skills, you can get extra training for $75 to $150 an hour.
- Seek a clinical assessment. If you have disabilities, such as those caused by arthritis, dementia, low vision or stroke, consider a clinical driving assessment, AAA recommends. These evaluations, done by occupational therapist driving rehabilitation specialists, include a review of your medical history, cognitive abilities and driving skills. A clinical assessment can cost $200 to $400, plus $100 an hour for therapy, according to AAA. Find a provider in the directory from The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.
How to make your driving safer
To stay safer in the driver’s seat, follow this senior driving advice.
Address specific challenges. If the evaluation of your driving shows a specific problem, work to improve in that area, Cox says. For example, the driving safety lab he directs evaluated a man who’d had a stroke. His sluggish braking made him a dangerous driver even though his other skills were fine, Cox says. So the driver worked with a physical therapist to improve strength, speed and function of his foot and leg control.
Brush up on basic driving skills. AAA’s Drivesharp, an online brain training program, has been shown to improve driving skills, Cox says. The program ($89 or $49 for AAA members 55 or older, free for some AAA auto insurance policyholders) can cut crash risk by up to 50 percent, according to AAA. It can reduce reaction time, increase your field of view and help you drive better at night. But it won’t reverse declines due to a serious condition such as Alzheimer’s disease, Cox says. “It’s for the healthy aging population.”
Stay healthy. Exercising regularly, including stretching and strength training, can make you a better driver, according to the Mayo Clinic’s tip sheet for older drivers. If you have a chronic condition that can affect your driving, such as diabetes, work with your doctor to keep it under control. Finally, talk to your doctor about your medications and driving safety. About 95 percent of seniors take medicine that could affect their driving, according to AAA.
Plan your trips. Before you set out, know where you’re going. Program your GPS or call for directions. If possible, choose routes that don’t have a lot of traffic, the National Institutes of Health recommends. If driving in unfamiliar areas makes you anxious, make a practice run with a passenger before you have to drive a route alone, the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute recommends.
Stay in your comfort zone. You don’t necessarily need to limit yourself just because you’re getting older, Cox says. But if you feel uncomfortable driving at night, in the rain or at rush hour, adjust your schedule to avoid getting behind the wheel in those conditions or at those times, he says.
Choose well-lit streets. If you have any problems driving at night but still plan to get in the driver’s seat after dark, choose streets with plenty of streetlights. This can reduce glare from other cars’ headlights and help you read signs.
Drive in the right lane. Literally. The right lane is for slower traffic.
Stay focused. Remember what you learned way back in driver’s ed: Scan your surroundings for hazards and try to anticipate the actions of other drivers. Also, avoid any activity, such as eating or talking on the phone, that might distract you.
Take steps to stay alert. Seniors are more likely than younger drivers to suffer from “highway hypnosis,” which can cause dozing or tuning out while behind the wheel, according to the University of Michigan. Combat this problem by getting a good night’s sleep before you get behind the wheel. On longer trips, stay hydrated while driving and stop to stretch and get refreshed every hour or two.
Drive decisively. The most dangerous move for senior drivers is the left turn, partly because they tend to perform the maneuver too slowly, which makes them more likely to get hit by another car, Cox says. “Make a decision whether to go, then go,” he says. “Don’t dally.”
New car? Choose helpful features. Look for features that will make driving easier and safer — for example, rain sensors that automatically turn the windshield wipers on and off and extendable visors that can help shield your eyes from sun glare.
Finally, know when to hang up the keys. If you truly shouldn’t be driving, then it’s not OK to make even a short jaunt to church or the grocery store, Cox says.