Most Americans rely on their car when it comes to getting from one place to another. Driving is a key to independence.
As you get older, you should be able to continue to drive. A person's ability to drive isn't based on age alone. But age or disease-related changes in vision, physical fitness, problem-solving abilities, and reflexes may be reasons to reassess your abilities behind the wheel.
If any of the following have happened to you, you may have a problem that affects your driving:
A friend or family member has expressed concern about your driving ability.
You have become lost while driving on familiar routes.
You have been warned by a police officer about poor driving behavior, even if you did not get a ticket.
You have had several moving violations, near misses, or actual crashes in the last 3 years.
Among the most common age-related changes that can affect your driving is vision. As people age, they may have reduced vision. And it becomes harder for eyes to adjust and focus on different objects. This problem is worse at night. This is especially true when trying to recover from the glare of headlights. Vision problems from eye diseases such as cataracts, macular degeneration, or glaucoma also can affect your driving ability.
Here are several symptoms of declining vision:
You have problems reading highway or street signs, or recognizing someone you know across the street.
You have trouble seeing lane lines and other pavement markings, curbs, medians, other vehicles, and pedestrians, particularly at dawn, dusk, and at night.
You have more discomfort at night from the glare of oncoming headlights.
If you have any of these symptoms, see your eye care provider. Even without these symptoms, you should see your eye care provider once a year for a routine eye exam. Always wear your glasses. Check that your headlights are correctly aimed. If your vision is getting worse, don't drive at night or in bad weather.
Another common age-related change that can affect your driving is your hearing. Good hearing allows drivers to hear sirens and horns. It also lets them know what is happening around them. If you wear hearing aids, always wear them and check that your batteries are charged.
As you age, it may become harder to control a car because of a decrease in muscle strength, coordination, and flexibility.
Arthritis or physical pain also can limit driving abilities. This includes being able to fully turn your head to look for traffic or drive a car with a manual transmission.
Symptoms of physical limits or decreased physical fitness include:
You have trouble looking over your shoulder to change lanes. Or you have trouble looking left and right to check traffic at intersections.
You have trouble moving your foot from the gas to the brake pedal or turning the steering wheel.
You have fallen at least once in the last year. This doesn't count trips or stumbles.
You walk less than a block a day.
You can't raise your arms above your shoulders.
You feel pain in your knees, legs, or ankles when going up or down a flight of 10 stairs.
If you have any of these symptoms, get a physical exam and advice from your healthcare provider about a stretching and walking program for fitness. An occupational therapist can suggest changes to your car for added safety. They can also point out features already in your car that can help you drive it more safely. Get a car with an automatic transmission, power steering, and power brakes. Limit sounds and distractions inside the vehicle. Always wear your seat belt.
Driving requires dividing your attention among many activities and being able to react quickly. Reaction time decreases with age. Although it may not be obvious in other activities, a delay in response time can be quite noticeable during unexpected driving situations.
A decline in vision and hearing reduces the information that a person needs to respond or react to the environment with speed and good judgment that traffic often requires.
Illnesses can affect driving abilities as people age. These include heart, lung, nervous system, and mental health conditions.
Medicines can also decrease alertness, attention, concentration, and reaction time. Review your medicines with your healthcare provider. Ask if any changes should be made, or if you should not take certain medicines while driving.
Symptoms of decreased reaction time and attention include:
You feel overwhelmed by all the signs, signals, road markings, pedestrians, and vehicles at intersections.
Gaps in traffic are harder to judge. This makes it harder to turn left at intersections or to merge with traffic when turning right.
You often get lost or become confused.
You are slow to see cars coming out of driveways and side streets or to realize that another car has slowed or stopped ahead of you.
If you have these symptoms, you might try to limit your driving to familiar routes. Drive only during the day. Don't go out at rush hour and take heavily traveled routes. Turn left at intersections that have a green arrow for left turns, or make several right turns so you won't have to turn left.
Here are some precautions to take once you're behind the wheel:
Follow the laws of the road. Stay in your lane and try to drive at the speed of traffic. Don't go too slow or too fast.
Buckle up. Fasten your seat belt and insist that your passengers do the same. Wearing your seat belt can protect you in a crash.
Concentrate on your driving. Keep the radio volume low and don't smoke, eat, drink, or use a cell phone. When talking to passengers, keep your eyes on the road. Plan your route in advance.
Watch for other cars. Glance at your mirrors often and always look behind you when reversing or changing lanes.
Turn with caution. Always use your turn signal and don't rush. Make turns only when you have a clear view of oncoming traffic and are sure you can turn safely. Then turn as slowly as needed to stay in your lane. If possible, consider changing your route so you won't have to make difficult turns.
Know your limits. Try to stay out of driving situations that make you uncomfortable. For example, if night driving becomes difficult, don't drive at night. Or plan ahead if you don't like driving fast, driving in a lot of traffic, or driving in bad weather. Don't be embarrassed to ask friends or family for a ride.
Brush up on your skills. Consider taking a driving safety course. AARP's Driver Safety Program is a refresher course for drivers age 50 and older. To find an AARP course near you, contact your local AARP chapter or visit AARP.