Health Tip:The Mature Driver

Americans love to drive their cars. The ability to get in one’s vehicle and drive anywhere, anytime, has long been part of the American dream. We all remember the thrill of getting our driver’s license and the freedom it promised in our young lives. So it’s no surprise that it is so difficult to hang up the car keys and give up that freedom when it’s no longer safe to drive.

Aging

Driving requires timing, coordination and concentration. We need to be alert to the sights and sounds around us, such as pedestrians, other cars, traffic signals and signs. In addition, we have to control the speed and direction of the car, judge distances, and be aware of what is going on in front, on both sides and behind the car.

Driving tasks that cause older drivers the most difficulty include:

  • Staying in their lane.
  • Yielding the right of way.
  • Completely stopping at stop signs.
  • Judging the distance or time needed to turn in front of other traffic.
  • Driving at the appropriate speed.

Making these mistakes while driving frequently causes accidents, and the risk of crashes rises with age, especially after 75.

Age-related changes that occur, such as decreased night vision or reaction time, affect our ability to drive more than our age alone. These changes vary from person to person, which is why some people are able to maintain their driving skills longer than others.

Age-Related Changes

Hearing

Hearing loss associated with age can make it harder to hear:

  • Sirens.
  • Car horns.
  • Noises and sounds from your car.

Eyesight

Changes in vision can:

  • Make it difficult to see clearly at night, during sunrise or at sunset.
  • Cause glare and vision difficulty from headlights or other street lights after dark.
  • Cause glare and vision difficulty from bright sunlight.
  • Reduce your field of vision when looking straight ahead.
  • Reduce your peripheral vision.
  • Make it difficult to distinguish colors and read signs.

In addition, eye diseases such as cataracts, macular degeneration or glaucoma become much more common as we age.

Attention Span/Reaction Time

It is not uncommon for our attention span to shorten and our reaction time to slow as we age.

Physical Condition

Changes caused by certain health conditions can also affect your driving abilities. In their early stages, some may not present a problem, but as they continue, changes may affect the ability to drive. These include:

  • Arthritis - stiffened or swollen joints can make it hard to hold the steering wheel, use the pedals, put on a seatbelt, turn the ignition, check blind spots and rear of car, or get into and out of a car.
  • Parkinson’s disease - movement and balance are affected making it harder to move the steering wheel, use the brake pedal or accelerator, and react quickly in a dangerous situation.
  • Stroke - the weakness and paralysis of a stroke make it hard to control a car, and can cause confusion in traffic.
  • Diabetes - uncontrolled blood sugar levels can cause confusion, dizziness and sleepiness, which are especially dangerous while driving.
  • Alzheimer’s disease or dementia - drivers with these conditions may not recognize the decline of their driving abilities as they have difficulty remembering directions or find themselves getting lost, even in familiar places.

Medications

Many types of medicine can cause side effects such as drowsiness or confusion that interfere with safe driving.

Having one of these health conditions does not necessarily mean you are incapable of driving, but it does make sense to pay more attention to your driving skills and any difficulties you may be having.

What to Do

Fortunately, there are things you can do to keep yourself on the road as long as possible. With a few minor adjustments, or a little effort on your part to improve your driving skills, you can stay safe while driving.

  • Have your hearing checked every three years.

Keep it quiet in the car to eliminate distracting noise.

Be alert for flashing lights on emergency vehicles if you have a hard time hearing sirens.    

            - If you need a hearing aid, use it when you drive.

  • Have your vision checked every one to two years.

Have cataracts treated by your eye doctor.

Keep your eyeglass or contact lens prescription up-to-date and wear them when driving if required.

Antireflective lenses and polarized sunglasses can reduce glare and improve vision.

  • Change your driving habits.

If you have trouble seeing at night, limit driving to daytime hours.

If you have difficulty driving in heavy traffic, avoid driving during peak traffic times, such as morning and afternoon rush hours.

If traffic on expressways or freeways makes it difficult for you to drive, plan routes using smaller local streets.

  • Take a defensive driving or driving skills refresher class. You may even qualify for a discount on your insurance!
  • Take care of yourself by eating a healthy diet, get plenty of rest, and exercise regularly to keep your physical and mental abilities sharp.
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