Checking the skills of older drivers
August 17, 2004
Dear Savvy Senior:
My husband just turned 75 last month and his driving bothers me. He drives very jerky and doesn’t pay much attention to what he’s doing and I don’t like being in the car with him. He says he drives as well as he always has, which by the way, has never been very good. What can I do to help him see his driving skills have gotten worse and, is there anything we can both do to become safer drivers as we get older? – Back-seat Driver
There are lots of older drivers on the road like your husband that don’t realize they’ve become bad drivers! But as we grow older, the loss of our vision, hearing, mobility and strength is so gradual that many people don’t recognize it until they’re faced with a quick driving decision that they can’t react to any longer. Aging affects the three most important requirements for driving: sensory, decision making and acting. Let’s take a look at these three factors.
The most important element necessary to driving is being able to see, which often begins to diminish between the ages of 40 and 50. We lose some ability to read road signs in the distance or shift focus from the close-up instrument panel to traffic signals in the distance. Colors can also become less bright and older drivers require more light while at the same time struggle with glare. Hearing loss can also contribute to driving problems.
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Driving involves many judgment calls, which is good news for older drivers. Barring dementia or other serious illness, judgment skills learned from years of driving usually don’t diminish. Most older drivers recognize and avoid situations where their limitations put them at risk, like driving after dark, during rush hour or in bad weather. However, some older drivers deny having any impairment which can be very dangerous to themselves and others.
It’s one thing to make a decision and another to have the ability to carry it out quickly in the car. Effects of arthritis, weaker muscles, reduced flexibility and limited range of motion can restrict the ability to grip the steering wheel, press the brake and accelerator and turn to look over the shoulders.
There are several ways to determine an older driver’s ability to perform safe driving. Here are some questions to ask:
— Does the driver have difficulty working the pedals, merging on freeways, or turning onto busy streets?
— When merging or changing lanes, does the driver rely on mirrors, rather than turning fully to check blind spots over the shoulder?
— Does the driver have trouble seeing other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians, especially at night, weave, straddle or drift into others lanes?
— In the past two years, has the driver had two or more near misses or collisions?
Here are some things older drivers can do to help correct their limitations:
— Get a complete medical exam and eye exam and learn if your medications can affect your driving.
— Choose a car with such features as height adjustable seats and safety belt anchors, good visibility, legible instruments, glare-proof mirrors and a tilt steering wheel.
— Choose routes with good light, right-turn instead of left-turn intersections, clear signs and signals, well-marked lanes, easy-in, easy-out parking, and light traffic.
— Take a driver’s refresher course to renew and test driving skills.
AARP: Offers a driver improvement course specially designed for senior drivers age 50 and older. Call 1-888-227-7669 or visit http://www.aarp.org/55alive.
AAA: Many AAA-affiliated motor clubs offer one-day senior driving improvement programs. Your local AAA can be found in the white pages of your phone book.
AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety: Offers several free senior driving publications. Visit http://www.aaafoundation.org.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit http://www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a regular contributor to the NBC “Today” show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.