How Aging Influences Driving Safety and What You Can Do About It



What Influences Driving Safety?

A variety of factors can influence driving safety. The main three categories of factors that can influence an older adult’s ability to drive are physical health conditions, memory and judgement changes, and medications.


Physical Health

Look out for these physical changes:

  • Stiffness in the neck, shoulders, or arms can make it difficult to turn the body and neck, consequently making it difficult to maintain awareness of surroundings. For example, if an older adult can no longer turn their head to the side, they will be unable to check their blind spot when changing lanes.

  • Weakness in the hands, arms, or feet can make it difficult to keep hold of the steering wheel or push down on the break or gas pedals.

  • Vision problems can make all aspects of driving more difficult, especially at night. Adequate vision is required for seeing traffic signals, other vehicles, and street signs.

  • Hearing loss can affect driving if the older adult no longer notices sounds like sirens and honking vehicles.

Health professionals can identify and help address these issues. An audiologist can assess hearing, an optometrist or ophthalmologist can assess vision, and primary care physicians or physical therapists can assess strength and flexibility.


Memory & Judgement

It is not uncommon for older adults to experience occasional lapses in memory or judgement. However, when an older adult is frequently confused or begins to have trouble remembering directions or the rules of driving, this can be a sign that driving is no longer safe. First and foremost, it is important for older adults to get enough sleep, remain physically active, and eat a well rounded diet, as not practicing these healthy habits can lead to drowsiness and problems concentrating.

If an older adult is medically diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, they will need to stop driving eventually. It is important to discuss driving retirement early and make a plan for transportation alternatives. Transportation alternatives include public transportation, community volunteer programs, and rideshare options.


Medications

The majority of older adults take at least 5 medications each day. Some medications can have side effects such as drowsiness, blurred vision, and problems concentrating. These side effects can make driving unsafe. Consult a pharmacist or physician for a review of all current medications. Medications that may have these side effects include:

  • Tranquilizers

  • Antihistamines

  • Decongestants

  • Cough medicines

  • Sleep medicines

  • Narcotic pain medicines

Driving Retirement

If it becomes necessary for an older adult to turn in their keys or lisence, caregivers can follow a few tips to make the transition a little easier. First, caregivers should always make sure to clearly explain to the older adult their safety concerns, bringing up specific incidents that were cause for concern and explaining the danger that could result from repeated incidents. It can also be helpful to involve trusted individuals or professionals with expertise such as law enforcement officers or health providers. This sort of clear communication and involvement of authority can help ensure the older adult understands the seriousness of the situation. The actual transition away from driving can be made easier if transportation alternatives have already been identified. Ensuring the older adult can still get around as independently as possible and attend any stores or social events they’d like is supportive of mental and physical health. CaringWire offers a driving safety assessment to help older adults and caregivers decide if driving is still safe. Additionally, CaringWire can provide a conversation guide for talking about driving retirement and a list of local transportation alternatives.


Car Adjustments

Certain adjustments can make driving more safe and comfortable for an older adult. Examples of adjustments include:

  • Moving the driver's seat backward, forward, higher, or lower to ensure the older adult has a clear view of the road and can fully reach the pedals (Drivers should be at least 12 inches away from the steering wheel to remain outside the airbag deployment zone).

  • Adjusting the steering wheel to ensure there is space between the wheel and lap, there is no obstruction of view over the steering wheel, and the center of the wheel is angled toward the body (rather than the face).

  • Adjusting the seat belt by moving up or down the attachment where the belt meets the side of the car, to ensure the belt runs over the shoulder.

  • Adjusting mirrors, to ensure the older adult can:

See the entire rear window

See the left rear of the car when their head is against the driver's side window

See the right rear of the car when they lean towards the middle of the car


Professionals Who Can Help

Trained professionals who can provide advice and assistance regarding an older adult’s driving safety include:

  • Physicians and nurses can evaluate health and answer general driving questions.

  • Physical therapists can help maintain or improve physical abilities.

  • Occupational therapists can perform driving assessments and suggest training, car adjustments, or modifications to promote safety.

  • Optometrists and ophthalmologists can assess vision and eye health.

  • Pharmacists can review medications to identify any drugs that may affect driving.


Individuals that work with local governments, transit systems, Area Agencies on Aging, or Disability Resource Centers can also answer questions and provide advice.


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