Keeping Seniors Drivers Safe Behind the Wheel
Driving can be a challenge no matter what your age, but older drivers may have more difficulty with the task. As we age, our physical, mental and sensory abilities change, which may make it unsafe to drive. These changes can often prevent older drivers from getting behind the wheel, stripping them of their independence and leaving them stranded at home.
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) sponsors Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, which aims to help keep seniors more active, healthy and safe when they are behind the wheel. By keeping seniors on the road, rates of isolation, loneliness and depression can be reduced.
Older Driver Safety Awareness Week
This year, Older Driver Safety Awareness Week is December 3-7, and AOTA believes that by bringing awareness to the problems that seniors can face behind the wheel, the organization can provide broader solutions that encourage independence. AOTA’s goal with this initiative is to “promote understanding of the importance of mobility and transportation to ensuring older adults remain active in the community—shopping, working or volunteering—with the confidence that transportation will not be the barrier to strand them at home.”
Occupational therapists have the skills to evaluate a person’s overall ability to operate a vehicle safely, and upon identifying any issues they might have, can also provide rehabilitation services. A range of driving fitness evaluations are available for older adults who want to improve their confidence in the car—from self-assessments to professional assessments from an occupational therapist. Depending on the results, seniors can make informed decisions about their safety behind the wheel, and families can plan for alternate methods of transportation should their loved ones have to give up the keys.
Elderly Driving Statistics in the U.S.
When you’re out on the road, there’s a good chance you’ll be sharing your lane with an older driver, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six drivers is over age 65. Part of why it’s so important to get a driving assessment once you turn 65 is because “older adult drivers are more than twice as likely to report having a medical problem that makes it difficult to travel” as compared to younger drivers, according to the CDC.
Some of the medical problems that affect older drivers include heart disease, dementia, sleep disorders, hearing impairment and vision loss. In addition, the CDC reports that four out of five older adults take medication daily, which can also affect your ability to drive safely as you age. Side effects of certain medications can impair judgment, create blurred vision, bring about sudden dizziness or fatigue, and even cause loss of consciousness. Even without the presence of chronic health concerns or prescription drugs, older drivers are susceptible to other physical and mental changes that can impair their driving, such as slower response times, trouble multitasking, macular degeneration, difficulty turning to check blind spots, and slower hand-eye coordination.
Tips and Resources for Older Drivers
All is not lost for older drivers, however. If you’re starting to lose your confidence behind the wheel, DMV.org describes some things you can do to help improve your driving skills:
- Listen to Your Body. If you wake up with a stiff neck or didn’t sleep well the night before, be aware that it might limit your ability to drive. Listen to your body and don’t get behind the wheel if you’re not physically feeling up to it.
- Schedule Hearing and Vision Tests. Annual physicals don’t typically include comprehensive hearing and vision tests, so if you are concerned about either of these, it’s important to schedule appointments with specialists.
- Talk to a Doctor About Your Medications. If you think your prescription medications have been affecting your ability to drive, talk to your doctor about it. There may be alternative courses of treatment for you that won’t impact your driving.
- Avoid Dangerous Conditions. If you have trouble with your eyesight, perhaps avoid driving at night when your vision is more limited. And if you feel a little unsteady behind the wheel, choose not to drive when it’s raining or snowing outside.
- Take a Driver Ed Course. There are a variety of courses that older drivers can take to help improve their skills on the road. A mature driver education course can teach defensive driving techniques, keep you updated on new laws, and help boost your confidence.
You can also schedule an assessment with an occupational therapist to have them put together a more individualized plan of action for you, which would address a wide range of physical, mental and sensory challenges.
When it’s time to give up the keys to the car, there are a variety of resources for seniors and their families to consider. If public transportation is not an option, contact the National Center on Senior Transportation to find out about alternate means of transportation. Or contact your local Area Agency on Aging to learn about the transportation resources available in your area.