Do senior drivers cause more accidents than younger people? There is a perception in society that older drivers are a menace on the roads, yet studies show that drivers over 65 have no more collisions than other age groups. In 2010 (the latest year we found data for), 3.9% of all licensed drivers of any age were involved in collisions. Only 2% of licensed drivers over 65 were involved in collisions. Seniors are more likely, however, to be seriously or fatally injured in a crash. Of all collision injuries in 2010, 8% were over 65; of collision fatalities in 2010, 23% were over 65.
Any demographic group you care to name – teenagers, mothers of young children, overworked and stressed out business executives – has its share of bad drivers; seniors are not immune. Of course, there are seniors who should not be driving, but age and experience do count for something. In the wisdom of advanced years, many seniors self-limit their driving or quit altogether because they know they are not as sharp as they need to be to drive safely.
The Ontario MInistry of Transportation recently introduced new rules for drivers over the age of 80. Instead of having to pass a written test every 5 years, they must now participate in a group education session and pass a simple test that measures mental agility and memory. The entire process should take about 90 minutes, vs. three hours for the old written test, generating less anxiety and easier to tolerate physically. Hopefully, it will also find more of the drivers who should not be driving.
No one wants to give up their independence, and the ability to drive certainly allows for more independence than having to take public transportation or ask someone for a ride; but limiting where and when you drive, or even giving up the keys doesn’t mean you have completely lost your independence. Getting a ride can add social time with friends or relatives; walking is certainly good for your health; taking public transportation is better for the environment; all these alternatives can mean a welcome change of pace if you choose to think of it that way.
The risk factors of driving associated with age depend on so many factors, we couldn’t begin to list them all; but there are some things to keep in mind when you consider whether, when, and how much you should drive. Understanding your own limitations and changing your driving habits to accommodate them is the best method of staying safe.
- The pain and stiffness that we almost all have as we age can make it more difficult to look over your shoulder to change lanes, to lift your leg to move from the accelerator to the brake, or to press the clutch with a manual transmission.
- Diminishing strength in your arms and legs makes it harder to brake adequately or turn the steering wheel fast enough to make turns properly.
- The time it takes to react to a potentially dangerous situation slows down as we age.
- Watching road signs, signals, other vehicles, and pedestrians strains your ability to keep track of multiple activities around you.
- Many chronic conditions and the medications for them can affect your eyesight and muscle strength or increase your risk of losing control of your vehicle from having a heart attack or stroke.
Here are some tips to help you drive safely, given the risk factors above:
- Take charge of your health. Get your eyes and hearing checked annually. Get adequate sleep so that your brain works in optimum condition. Talk to your doctor about the effect your medications may have on your ability to drive. Stay physically active to maintain muscle strength and flexibility.
- Drive under optimal conditions. If glare bothers you, avoid driving at night. Drive only in good weather under dry conditions. Keep your windshield and headlights clean. Drive when traffic is light and avoid streets and highways with too much traffic.
- Refresh your driving skills. Take a course that’s specifically designed for older drivers. If you are over 80, you will have to when you renew your license
- Make adjustments to your vehicle and use adaptive equipment if necessary. If you have lost height due to degenerating disks or osteoporosis and your vehicle does not have six-way adjustable seats (including the ability to raise the seat level) use a pillow or car set that gives you a few extra inches of seated height. Pedal extenders are also available. Make sure your vehicle has power steering and power brakes.
- Ensure you are in good shape to drive. Avoid driving when you are tired, stressed or upset. Drive on familiar streets and stay closer to home.
- Drive defensively. Leave more space between you and the car in front of you and allow sufficient braking distance. Pay extra attention at intersections. Plan your route so you don’t have to backtrack. Avoid distractions in the car such as a loud radio, cell phones and noisy children and chatty friends.
- Watch out for signs you need to stop driving. Almost crashing; dents and scrapes from misjudging where the car is in relation to the curb, fences, mailboxes and other objects; and increased traffic citations are all “red flags” that you may need to consider giving up the keys. Memory problems, getting lost on familiar streets, and becoming confused while driving are definite signs you need to stop. Listen to your loved ones if they tell you that you need to stop or limit your driving. (If your loved one is an older driver who needs to stop driving, read our post on how to take away the keys but leave their dignity intact.)
We all want to keep our independence, but no one wants to cause an accident or hurt anyone else. By being realistic about our abilities and limiting our driving when necessary, we do ourselves and everyone else a favor by making the streets safer for us all.