When it comes to driving safely, it’s your health, not your age that mattered most. For most people, the changes with age happen slowly over time and are not always obvious. However, as a person ages, there are changes in your physical and/or mental abilities that may affect your driving safely. For example, you may begin to have difficulty seeing at night or may not react as quickly to sudden events. Over time, the changes can affect your driving, especially in challenging situations like merging into traffic or changing lanes.
Age-related changes that may affect driving include changes in vision, hearing, attention and reaction time, and endurance, flexibility, and coordination. Medications and certain health conditions can also affect people in ways that make driving dangerous. However, age-related changes vary widely from one person to the next. That’s why some people can continue driving much longer than others.
Changes in Attention and Reaction Time
To drive safely, people must be able to pay attention to many things at once and react to sudden events. Sometimes they need to make quick decisions and act in time to avoid collisions. The American Automobile Association (AAA) states that a typical driver makes 20 decisions per mile and has less than a half second to react quickly enough to avoid a traffic accident. Age affects the three essential steps involved in that reaction process: sensing, deciding, acting.
Eyesight often worsens with age. Older eyes need more light and more time to adjust when light changes, so it may be difficult to see clearly, especially at dawn, dusk, and night. Eyes become more sensitive to glare from headlights, street lights, or the sun, making it difficult to see people, things, and movements outside your direct line of sight. Eye diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration become more common as people get older, thus making it harder to also read signs and distinguish contrasts.
Age-related hearing loss can make it harder to hear horns, sirens, and noises from your car. That can be a problem because these sounds warn you of possible danger.
As people age, their joints may get stiff, and their muscles may weaken. They may have trouble walking, lose endurance or deal with pain in their knees, legs, or ankles. All of these symptoms can make it harder to drive safely. A person may not be able to turn his or her head to look back, turn the steering wheel quickly, or brake safely.
Older adults generally take more medicines than when they were younger. Both prescription and over-the-counter medicines can affect the ability to drive safely by making you feel tired, dizzy, or nauseated. For example, certain cold remedies can cause drowsiness. Medications that treat depression, anxiety, stress, sleeping problems, heart disease, and muscle spasms can also cause problems. Not taking required medicines can cause problems as well. Studies have shown that using certain medications or many medications increases the chances of being in a crash.
Some health problems seen in older people can interfere with driving. It is often possible to keep driving in the early stages of a disease. But, as the disease gets worse, a person may decide that it is no longer safe to drive.
Although health conditions, that affects the arms, legs, neck, or back may affect someone’s fitness to drive, many of the newer vehicles can assist in accommodating physical impairments. For example, if a person has a problem with turning their head, the newer blindspot alert systems or extended mirrors can compensate for this problem. For someone with issues with their legs may be able to learn how to use hand controls.
There are several age-related diseases and conditions that can affect the ability to drive. Listed are the most common ones: diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease.
Having a particular health condition does not necessarily mean the end of driving. But you should pay attention to how well you drive or if you notices changes in your driving. If you or someone you know is concerned about your driving, talk to your doctor about getting a driving evaluation.