Older drivers may have more experience, but are they still safe drivers?

Older drivers can certainly boast about the number of years they have behind the wheel.  But as people age, their years of experience doesn't always equate into everyday safety.  In fact, their experiences are of a new sort, such as:

  • Vision changes:  Eyesight often weakens with age. This may cause trouble:
    • focusing on moving objects
    • seeing in the dark or in low light
    • adjusting to glare
    • seeing things on sides
  • Limited mobility:  Arthritis and other conditions ma affect their mobility and movement causing:
    • stiffness and pain in joints
    • weakness
    • loss of flexibility
  • Other changes:  People tend to slow down as they age. They may have:
    • slower reflexes
    • delayed reaction time
    • drowsiness or other side effects of medication
    • trouble judging distance or speed

Adjustments Older Drivers Can Make to Remain Mobile
For many, the loss of the driving privilege has significant social and psychological ramifications. The driver's license is a symbol of independence on the part of both the new, younger driver and the older driver. It continues to be a nearly indispensable key to mobility in America today, regardless of driver age. The older driver can adjust his/her driving habits to compensate for a decrease in driving skills by restricting driving to:

  • daylight hours
  • off-peak traffic hours
  • familiar roads
  • shorter trips
  • lower speed roads

When you drive well, you drive safely. Both you and your vehicle are able to respond to ever changing highway conditions. As simple as this sounds, safe driving really means that many critical human and mechanical elements work together. Let’s look at them and some tips to help you drive well.

Driving safely begins with seeing clearly. As you age, glare becomes a greater problem. It takes longer to see clearly after you are briefly blinded by strong light. Sunglasses can help on bright days. So will avoiding glare by not driving at night or into the late day sun.

In the third (50-75) and fourth (75+) ages of life, cataracts and other vision problems can develop quickly and undermine your visual acuity and the clarity needed for safe driving. Regularly scheduled eye exams are helpful in detecting eye conditions potentially detrimental to your driving safety.

Scheduled eye checks also keep your vision prescription up to date and ensure that your glasses or contacts remain comfortable to wear.

Your medications may compromise your alertness. You already know about drinking and driving, but some prescriptions and over-the-counter medications can be as intoxicating as a couple of drinks.

Your pharmacist and the fine print on your medications can tell you about any implications for driving -- important not only because your driving could be impaired and you could cause an accident, but also because some medications can cause you to fail a roadside sobriety check!

You have heard of aggressive driving and “road rage” so it should not be a surprise that your attitude behind the wheel affects your driving style and safety.

Preconceived notions about others (such as impatient teen drivers) and yourself (such as your own right to drive where and when you want) can provoke aggressive driving behaviors like tailgating and even vehicle bumping.

How do you cope with such outrageous and dangerous behaviors? It helps to understand that everyone is in a hurry and courtesy is sometimes in short supply. You can be part of the solution by letting faster-moving traffic by when those behind you show impatience or tailgate. Pull over for a moment and wave them by. You will feel better. They might appreciate your courtesy.

Driving well is about paying attention and being courteous. You want to be part of the solution, rather than the problem, right?

Confidence and Driving Proficiency
Just because you have been driving for most of your life (that's just about everyone over the age of 40) doesn't mean some potentially dangerous behaviors have not slipped into your repertoire. An in-car driving assessment provided by a professional driving instructor or a driver rehabilitation specialist can identify potential problems that can lead to a crash, injury and increased insurance premiums.

The same specialist can help you improve your in-car skills and judgment. Time spent with a driving specialist also can improve your confidence and driving enjoyment. Your added safety will help to keep your insurance premium low and driving record clean.

You can find a driver rehabilitation specialist in some hospitals or clinics with an occupational or physical therapy department. Or look for a driving school with a certified professional instructor experienced with older or disabled persons.

A variety of programs are available to help you drive safely longer. Most persons over the age of 50 have heard about AARP's 55 Alive/Mature Driving Program. It's just one of a number of accident prevention programs providing the latest information about traffic laws, road signs and safe driving practices. Unlike most approved motor vehicle accident prevention courses, this 8-hour (2 sessions) classroom program is specifically tailored to older drivers.

Even after a lifetime of driving, first-time participants usually come away surprised they learned so much. Most states offer point and insurance premium reductions to those completing the program. Contact AARP for the course location, dates and cost.

Other similarly approved 8-hour motor vehicle accident prevention classroom courses providing point and insurance premium reductions are offered by AAA (American Automobile Association, Inc.), the National Safety Council, Inc., and others. Contact your automobile insurance company or Department of Motor Vehicles for a list of organizations certified to provide the program in your area.

Your Vehicle
Up to this point, we have talked only about you -- the driver. But your vehicle also needs to be safe. This means safe and properly inflated tires, good brakes, responsive steering, working directional signals, brake lights, and of course, wipers which actually clear your windshield. Don't count on your annual vehicle safety inspection to identify all of the problems. Check for yourself or ask your mechanic to do so. Tire pressures, for example, are not always checked during annual safety inspections! When did you last check yours?

Driving well is about you and your vehicle functioning safely on the road as conditions change. It requires you to exercise judgment, skill and common courtesy. You may have to work at it. You may have to get help and instruction. But the benefits that come from safe driving are simply priceless: freedom, improved safety and independence.