Senior Living

Guide to Driving Safety for Senior Drivers

Amanda Liberatore
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From renewing your license to staying off the road, find out which senior driving safety solutions are right for you.

<p>Driving is viewed as a symbol of independence, a rite of passage into adulthood&nbsp;and an integral part of one&rsquo;s day-to-day routine. Experienced drivers may also&nbsp;perceive driving as second nature, but the process of operating and maintaining&nbsp;control over a vehicle is actually quite complex&mdash;requiring a combination of good&nbsp;vision, physical mobility, awareness and confidence.</p> <p>&ldquo;Safe driving is a function of ability, not age,&rdquo; says Jake Nelson, director of traffic&nbsp;safety advocacy and research at AAA in Washington, D.C.</p> <p>Studies confirm Nelson&rsquo;s statement. According to a 2012 study conducted by the&nbsp;AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers in their mid- to late-80s have lower&nbsp;overall crash rates per mile driven than drivers in their early 20s and roughly half&nbsp;the crash rates of teenagers, making them among the safest drivers on the road.</p> <p>However, the rate of fatal crashes skyrockets for drivers ages 85 and older, as&nbsp;declining health and effects from medical conditions make them less likely than&nbsp;younger drivers to withstand injuries sustained during a crash.</p> <p>The best way to stay safe on the road and reduce the risk of being involved in a&nbsp;crash is to maintain your physical health and address medical conditions. If you&nbsp;find you have health conditions or other limitations that could put you and your&nbsp;passengers at risk, you may want to reconsider driving in the future.</p> <p>EVALUATE THE WARNING SIGNS</p> <p>It&rsquo;s important to understand how your health can impact your driving ability. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s&nbsp;not any one disease that creates the issue or raises a red flag&mdash;it&rsquo;s whether people&nbsp;can manage their symptoms,&rdquo; Nelson says.</p> <p>Evaluate whether you are still able to drive by examining the following factors:</p> <p>VISION &mdash; Visual skills account for about 90 percent of the information a person&nbsp;needs to drive safely, so it&rsquo;s crucial to be mindful of impairments in your visual&nbsp;aptitude, says Ana Verran, research adjunct instructor in the department of&nbsp;occupational science and occupational therapy at the University of Southern&nbsp;California in Los Angeles. Inability to read signs and to recognize street markings,&nbsp;other cars and pedestrians in low-light conditions (such as at dawn or dusk) could&nbsp;suggest weak vision.</p> <p>Also, take note if you experience difficulty handling headlight glare at night,&nbsp;particularly in fog or rain, Verran says. This can be a sign of more serious visual&nbsp;issues such as cataracts. Other conditions such as glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration also can affect a senior&rsquo;s ability to perceive a traffic environment,&nbsp;notice traffic lights and signage, or recognize other cars or pedestrians, says Derrick P. Scott, certified driving rehabilitation specialist and director of&nbsp;Apex Driving&nbsp;School&nbsp;in Oakland, Calif.</p> <p>MOBILITY &mdash; Loss of strength, coordination and flexibility can make it difficult to&nbsp;control a vehicle. If you have trouble looking over your shoulder to change lanes&nbsp;or moving your foot from the gas pedal to the brake pedal, your ability to drive&nbsp;safely may be affected, Verran says. Pain or discomfort when you perform physical activities unrelated to driving &mdash; such as climbing a flight of stairs &mdash; also can&nbsp;indicate difficulty with mobility.</p> <p>Severe arthritis in the neck and shoulder areas can prevent senior drivers from&nbsp;turning around and looking out their back window. This could pose a safety problem, especially in parking lots where you might be driving in reverse, says Gayle&nbsp;San Marco, an occupational therapist and certified driving rehabilitation specialist&nbsp;at&nbsp;Northridge Hospital Medical Center&rsquo;s Driver Preparation Program&nbsp;in Los&nbsp;Angeles. When untreated or unnoticed, diabetes can create certain side effects that&nbsp;affect a senior driver&rsquo;s mobility, such as neuropathy (a collection of nervous system&nbsp;disorders that can cause pain and numbness in the hands and feet).</p> <p>BEHAVIOR &mdash; Note if you are having trouble remembering familiar routes or ifyou become anxious, confused or uncomfortable while driving, San Marco says.</p> <p>Another behavior to watch for is if you have trouble distinguishing the gas pedal&nbsp;from the brake pedal. This is a cause for immediate concern, as this behavior &mdash;&nbsp;while unintentional &mdash; is very dangerous.</p> <p>TRACK YOUR MEDICATION COMBINATIONS</p> <p>In addition to assessing health conditions that could complicate driving, it&rsquo;s important to evaluate your medications. According to Nelson, eight out of 10 drivers ages&nbsp;65 and older take multiple medications on a regular basis. If those medications come&nbsp;with side effects, such as blurred vision, dizziness, sleepiness or slow movement,&nbsp;combining them can cause those side effects to be more severe or create new side&nbsp;effects that make it dangerous to drive. &ldquo;If you are experiencing side effects, see your&nbsp;doctor so he can adjust the medication dosage as needed,&rdquo; Verran says.</p> <p>Even if you don&rsquo;t notice any side effects, it&rsquo;s a good idea to discuss all of the&nbsp;medications you&rsquo;re taking with your doctor at least once a year to ensure that they don&rsquo;t impact your safety on the road. Consider asking your doctor for a&nbsp;&ldquo;brown bag review.&rdquo;</p> <p>This is a common medical practice that requires patients to bring in all of their&nbsp;medications and supplements &mdash; both over-the-counter and prescription drugs&nbsp;&mdash; to be reviewed by their health care provider. During the discussion, your&nbsp;doctor can identify any drug interactions of concern and adjust your dosage or&nbsp;medication accordingly.&nbsp;</p> <p>You also may choose to start this review process online.&nbsp;Roadwise Rx, a free, confidential service offered by AAA, allows drivers to enter all of their medications into&nbsp;an online database and then notes any interactions and warnings for drivers. It also&nbsp;lets you print out a report to be reviewed by your doctor or pharmacist.&nbsp;</p> <p>READY TO RENEW?&nbsp;</p> <p>Drivers ages 65 and older generally have less time between driver&rsquo;s license&nbsp;renewals than other age groups. Older drivers also may be asked to renew in&nbsp;person (instead of electronically or by mail) and take a vision test.&nbsp;Interestingly, if your ability to drive is in question based on your demeanor&nbsp;at the time of renewal, you may be asked to undergo physical or mental&nbsp;examinations first, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.&nbsp;Licensing agencies may refuse to renew the license or restrict its use (for&nbsp;example, restrictions might include nighttime driving or driving far from&nbsp;home). Visit iihs.org/laws/olderdrivers.aspx for renewal information by state.</p> <p>STAY UP TO DATE</p> <p>Aside from managing your health, you can help ease your worries on the road by making sure your car is safe and that you still understand how to operate it. Here are three&nbsp;actions that can make a difference:</p> <p>1. MAKE VEHICLE UPGRADES. If you&rsquo;re in the market for a new car, choose one that&nbsp;can accommodate your health issues (for example, full-size sedans offer more space if&nbsp;you need room to position yourself in the front seat). If you&rsquo;re not looking to buy a&nbsp;new car, you can still make minor improvements. &ldquo;A keyless entry or keyless ignition&nbsp;may be useful to you if you have joint pain,&rdquo; Verran says.</p> <p>For assistance finding the right car for your situation, check out the&nbsp;Edmunds.com&nbsp;Mobility Buying Guide&nbsp;for recommendations. You also can use&nbsp;Smart Features for&nbsp;Older Drivers, an online tool developed by AAA and the University of Florida Institute&nbsp;for Mobility, Activity and Participation. The tool guides seniors in choosing a vehicle&nbsp;equipped with the proper features to fit their needs. &ldquo;For example, if you have arthritis,&nbsp;you may want a car with a thicker steering wheel and a push-button start,&rdquo; Nelson says.</p> <p>2. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF NEWER TECHNOLOGIES. Use a global positioning system&nbsp;instead of a map to plan your route, receive warnings about inclement weather and check&nbsp;traffic patterns before you get on the road. As long as you&rsquo;ve programmed the GPS by entering the address of your destination while you&rsquo;re parked (not while the car is in motion),&nbsp;the GPS device can read off the directions once you start to drive. &ldquo;Every effort should be&nbsp;taken to stay focused while the car is in motion,&rdquo; Verran says. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s going to go a long&nbsp;way toward maximizing safety.&rdquo;</p> <p>3. SIGN UP FOR A DRIVER IMPROVEMENT COURSE. &ldquo;For many people it&rsquo;s been&nbsp;several decades since they learned to drive,&rdquo; Nelson says. &ldquo;In that time, vehicles&nbsp;and general rules of the road have changed a lot.&rdquo; For a refresher on driving&nbsp;skills, contact organizations such as AAA that offer local&nbsp;courses designed&nbsp;specifically for seniors. Some courses may make seniors eligible for a discount&nbsp;on their insurance.</p> <p>ASSESS YOUR SITUATION</p> <p>Of course, a refresher may not be enough if your health status puts you at risk on&nbsp;the road. Keep an open mind and listen when friends or family members give you&nbsp;feedback on your driving abilities. They may notice behaviors and health concerns&nbsp;that you may not.</p> <p>If your driving abilities are in question, consider taking an assessment to see if&nbsp;it may, indeed, be time to give up your keys. Start with&nbsp;Roadwise Review, an&nbsp;online screening tool developed by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The&nbsp;tool measures eight functional abilities important to safe driving: leg strength&nbsp;and general mobility; head and neck flexibility; high-contrast visual acuity; lowcontrast visual acuity; visualization of missing information; visual search; visual&nbsp;information processing; and working memory. The&nbsp;Fitness-to-Drive Screening&nbsp;Measure, developed by researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville,&nbsp;is another online assessment tool that allows caregivers and family members of&nbsp;senior drivers to rate loved ones&rsquo; driving skills.</p> <p>You also may want to have a trained technician assess your situation.&nbsp;CarFit, an&nbsp;educational program sponsored by AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association, employs teams of trained technicians and health professionals to work with seniors to ensure they &ldquo;fit&rdquo; their vehicle comfortably and&nbsp;safely. &ldquo;We make sure that each driver can actually reach their gas and brake&nbsp;pedals and that their line of sight is over the steering wheel,&rdquo; says San Marco, a trained CarFit technician. &ldquo;We might also teach how to properly adjust the&nbsp;driver&rsquo;s seat or make recommendations based on medical evaluations.&rdquo;</p> <p>CONSIDER ALTERNATIVE TRANSPORTATION</p> <p>If you come to the conclusion that you&rsquo;re no longer safe to drive, or if you&rsquo;re&nbsp;just seeking other ways to get around, there are several alternatives that can&nbsp;help you stay connected to people and services outside of your home. Here are&nbsp;a few ideas:</p> <p>&bull;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION &mdash; Buses and trains can help you get to your destination without the hassle of parking or the stress of defensive driving. If these options are available in your area, try riding with a friend or family member who&nbsp;is familiar with the system the first few times until you become comfortable&nbsp;navigating it by yourself, says Gioia Ciani, an assistant professor at New York&nbsp;Institute of Technology School of Health Professions in Old Westbury, N.Y.</p> <p>&bull;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; VOLUNTEER DRIVER PROGRAMS &mdash; These programs employ volunteers to&nbsp;pick up seniors at their homes and bring them to doctor&rsquo;s appointments,&nbsp;church and other activities for little or no fee. &ldquo;Some will even go right&nbsp;to your door and assist you by picking up packages or holding your arm,&rdquo;&nbsp;Nelson says. Other programs allow friends and family members to make&nbsp;donations to a senior&rsquo;s account to pay for rides. To find a volunteer driver&nbsp;program in your area,&nbsp;visit the AAA website.</p> <p>PARATRANSIT SERVICES&mdash;If you have a disability that prevents you from using public&nbsp;transit easily, take advantage of paratransit services that send specially equipped&nbsp;shuttles to pick you up.&nbsp;Visit the AAA website&nbsp;or contact your local or regional&nbsp;transportation authority to find paratransit services near you.</p> <p>Resources</p> <p>Assessment Tools</p> <p>Fitness-to-Drive Screening Measure</p> <p>ftds.phhp.ufl.edu</p> <p>AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety&rsquo;s</p> <p>Roadwise Review</p> <p>aaafoundation.org/roadwise-review-online</p> <p>AAA Roadwise Rx</p> <p>roadwiserx.com</p> <p>AAA Smart Features for Older Drivers</p> <p>seniordriving.aaa.com/smartfeatures</p> <p>Driver Improvement Services</p> <p>AAA Driver Improvement Course for Seniors</p> <p>seniordriving.aaa.com/maintain-mobility-independence/driver-improvement-courses-seniors</p> <p>CarFit</p> <p>car-fit.org</p> <p>Safe Driving Resources</p> <p>AAA Senior Driving</p> <p>seniordriving.aaa.com</p> <p>National Highway Traffic Safety&nbsp;Administration &ndash; Older Drivers&nbsp;</p> <p>nhtsa.gov/Driving+Safety/Older+Drivers</p> <p>The American Occupational&nbsp;Therapy Association &ndash;&nbsp;Find a Driving Rehab Specialist</p> <p>aota.org/Driving/Evaluation-Licensing/Specialists.aspx</p> <p>FREE TRANSPORTATION AT BE.GROUP</p> <p>be.group senior living communities offer access to complimentary transportation to a variety&nbsp;of destinations in the surrounding areas. For residents who have their own cars, be.group offers&nbsp;complimentary parking at its communities. Some communities also offer residences with attached garages and/or covered parking.</p> <p>Learn more about be.group communities at thebegroup.org.</p>

Have you noticed that you’re having trouble seeing road signs or are experiencing pain during a routine drive—and now your family members are encouraging you to turn over your keys? It may be time to assess your ability to drive or take a course to stay up to date. 

Find resources for safer driving in this guide featuring: 

  • Information about medication combinations or health conditions that could inhibit your ability to drive
  • Tips for renewing your license
  • Links to driving assessments
  • Ideas for alternative transportation
Publication Date: May 14, 2013