Older Drivers Guide: Tips for Older Driver Safety

How are Older Adults Driving?

There are more than 40 million older adults (people 65 and older) who have an active driver’s license. You may be surprised to hear that they are, by and large, very safe drivers.

In fact, they’re more likely to wear their seat belt and drive the speed limit and are less likely to drink and drive than any other age group.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), older adults are less likely to be the drivers involved in fatal car accidents than people younger than them. As might expect, people ages 16-24 were the most likely to be driving.

But, even though older adults are the least likely to be drivers in car accidents, sadly, they are more likely to be injured or killed when they’re in a car accident because of age-related vulnerabilities, like more fragile bones. Or, because they have medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or other illnesses that make it harder for them to recover from major injuries.

What about the body’s natural decline with aging? Aren’t older adults more likely to be on medication? Don’t these affect a person’s ability to drive?

Yes, as we age our bodies naturally experience physical changes like to our vision, hearing, mobility, reaction time, mild memory changes, and so on. Our bodies are also more vulnerable to medical conditions, which might impair our ability to drive or require medications that can affect driving.

Even when there are medical changes and new medications, researchers have found, however, that older drivers are more likely to adjust their driving habits to accommodate these changes by driving in familiar areas, on surface streets (not on the freeway), during daylight hours, and they tend not to drive just after they have taken medications.

Why is Driving So Important to Many Older Adults?

Driving helps older adults stay independent later in life. It allows them to go to their doctors’ appointments, participate in activities that they enjoy, go to the grocery store, visit family, and helps them maintain morale and self-confidence.

What happens when older adults stop driving?

Without access to transportation, older adults are at risk of isolation, which puts them at risk for depression. The AAA Foundation found that when older adults stopped driving, they tended to stay in their homes, their social network shrank, and their… Risk for depression nearly doubled!

When older adults stop driving:

  • They make 15% fewer visits to their doctor
  • They make 65% fewer trips to friends, family, and church
  • They make 60% fewer shopping trips
  • Their social network shrinks
  • They’re at greater risk for cognitive decline
  • They tend to stay in their homes and experience more isolation
  • Are more likely to move to a long-term care community
  • 78% of family caregivers provide transportation

Transportation is the most requested type of assistance by older adults

 

Questions We Should Be Asking About Older Adults & Driving

Instead of thinking that all older adults should stop driving at a specific age, we should be thinking:

  • How do we help our older loved ones drive safely for as long as possible?
  • How can we help older adults gain awareness of their own personal warning signs for modifying or cutting back on driving?
  • How can we help older adults develop a driving retirement plan? So that they can prepare emotionally and financially for stopping driving?

Older Drivers: 6 Tips for Driver Safety

1. Meet with Your Doctor
Making sure that medical and mental health needs are being managed can help older adults remain driving for as long as possible. The primary care provider can assess the older adult for vision, hearing, and memory concerns that may affect driving. They can also educate you about medical conditions and driving, as well as medications and driving so that you can modify your driving if you need to.

2. Get Educated about Older Adults & Driving
The first step in helping older adults remain driving safely is to help them get educated. There are several really good online resources to provide education to help older adults remain driving safely. Here are my three:

  • NHTSA has downloadable, easy to read documents on how various medical conditions (like dementia, arthritis, diabetes, etc) can affect driving. Link to them here!
  • AAA has loads of resources and educational information online regarding Older Adults and driving. Check out their Senior Driving Website!
  • AARP offers tips on safe driving as you age– Check ’em out!

3. Take a Driving Self-Assessment
Here are free online resources that help older adults to quiz themselves on their vision, and reaction time, and physical changes, etc.

4. Adapt The Car to Make Sure It Fits
It’s really helpful to adapt the car to make sure it fits your older loved one well. Here are two options:

  • CarFit: CarFit is a free educational program created by the American Society on Aging and developed in collaboration with AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association, in which a trained technician or occupational therapist assesses how the older adult is sitting in their driver’s seat to make sure that they have the ideal “fit” in for maximum comfort, visual range, and safety. Find a CarFit near you it’s FREE!
  • Adapt the Car: If your older loved one has a new disability (often as a result of medical problems), their car may adapted to help them drive safely for longer. For instance, say mobility is an issue, cars can be adapted with swivel seats or hand controls (Note: you may have to pay for these modifications). Learn more here!

5. Take a Safe Driving Course for Older Adults
Even if the older adult is an expert driver or an experienced driver, they may still benefit from a safe driving refresher. In these courses, you’ll learn driving and age-specific information, like how to accommodate age related changes in vision, hearing, and reaction time, like how the effects of medication might affect driving, and so on.

The AARP Smart Driver™ course, is the nation’s first and largest refresher course designed specifically for drivers age 50 and older and it’s pretty affordable. Plus, presenting a certificate of completion to your parents’ auto insurance may lower their rate. Who doesn’t want more money in their pocket? Learn more here!

6. Take a Professional Driving Assessment
In some cases, it will be important to have a professional assess your older loved one’s ability to drive safely. This can be especially helpful if you and your loved one don’t see eye to eye on their ability to drive. The downside of professional assessments is that they can be costly.

AAA offers a very helpful guide to finding these resources near you! Link here!

Occupational Therapists (OT) tend to be the experts in driving assessment. You can go straight to the source and find an OT group here (in their search engine you can look for programs for drivers over 65 as well as for new drivers).

Driving offers valuable access to the community, healthcare, and friends and family. It keeps older adults healthier and less depressed.

References:

  • https://www.nhtsa.gov/sites/nhtsa.dot.gov/files/documents/2015_traffic_safety_fact_sheet_older_population.pdf
  • https://www.nhtsa.gov/road-safety/older-drivers
  • https://www.nadtc.org/about/transportation-aging-disability/unique-issues-related-to-older-adults-and-transportation/