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Tips to Stay Safe on the Road as You Get Older

As you get older, the skills you need to maneuver a car safely can start to deteriorate and make it more dangerous for you to drive. But you probably rely on driving as your primary mode of transportation. Giving up your keys could feel like giving up your independence.

Melissa Luxton, a trauma outreach and injury prevention coordinator at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix, shares her insight about the factors that make it harder for you to drive as you get older, and what you can do to alleviate them.

Problems with your joints and muscles

As you age, your joints may get stiff, and your muscles may become weaker. These changes can make it harder to look behind you, turn the steering wheel quickly or brake safely. And the loss of feeling or tingling in your fingers or feet can make it difficult to steer or use the pedals.

What you can do:

  • Exercise regularly to stay strong and flexible. “Exercise can help improve your reflexes and range of motion, ease pain and stiffness, and help you maintain enough strength to handle a car,” Luxton said.
  • If possible, drive a car with automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes and large mirrors.
  • Consider getting hand controls for the gas and brake pedals if you have leg problems.

Impaired vision

It might be harder to see people, things and movement outside your direct line of sight as you get older. It could take longer for you to read street or traffic signs or recognize familiar places. Glare from headlights or streetlights could make it harder to see at night. Eye diseases such as glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration and some medicines can also cause vision problems.

What you can do:

  • Keep your windshield, mirrors and headlights clean, and turn the brightness up on the instrument panel on your dashboard.
  • Minimize night driving if you have trouble seeing in the dark.
  • Try to avoid driving during sunrise and sunset, when the sun can be directly in your line of vision.
  • If you need glasses or contact lenses, make sure your prescription is up to date and correct.
  • If you are 65 or older, see your eye doctor every year. Ask if there are ways to improve your sight.

Impaired hearing

As you get older, it can be harder to hear sounds that warn you when you need to pull over or get out of the way, such as horns, sirens or even noises coming from your own car.

What you can do:

  • Try to keep the inside of the car as quiet as possible while driving.
  • Have your hearing checked at least every three years after age 50.
  • Talk to your doctor about options that can help you hear better.
  • If you need hearing aids, make sure you wear them while driving. Be careful when opening car windows since the breeze could make them less effective.

Slower reaction time

As you get older, you might not react as quickly as you could in the past. You might also find that you have a shorter attention span, making it harder to do two things at once.

What you can do:

  • Leave extra space between you and the car in front of you.
  • Start braking early when you need to stop.
  • Avoid heavy traffic areas or rush-hour driving when you can.
  • Drive in the right lane on a highway. “Traffic moves more slowly there, giving you more time to make safe driving decisions,” Luxton said.

Medication side effects

“Many medications have side effects that can make driving unsafe,” Luxton said. They could make you feel drowsy, lightheaded or less alert than usual.

What you can do:

  • Read medicine labels and look for warnings about driving.
  • Make a list of all your medicines and talk with your doctor or pharmacist about how they could affect your driving.
  • Don’t drive if you feel lightheaded or tired.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

People with very mild Alzheimer’s may be able to drive safely in certain conditions. However, as memory and decision-making skills worsen, they need to stop because they may not react quickly if something unexpected happens. “People with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease should never get behind the wheel,” Luxton said.

What you can do:

  • When you’re diagnosed, ask your family and friends to monitor your driving and intervene if they see a problem. As your dementia worsens, you probably won’t notice that you are having trouble driving.
  • If you forget how to find familiar places or your home, it’s time to stop driving.

Signs that you should be worried about an older driver

Luxton said these signs could mean an older person’s driving abilities are deteriorating:

  • Frequent close calls or dents and scrapes on the car, fences, mailboxes, garage doors or curbs.
  • Two or more traffic tickets, or increased car insurance premiums.
  • Making sudden lane changes, drifting into other lanes, braking, or accelerating suddenly without reason, failing to use the turn signal or keeping the signal on without changing lanes.
  • Taking a long time to do a simple errand and not being able to explain why, which may mean they got lost.
  • Confusing the brake and gas pedals.

If you notice these signs, here are ways you can address your loved one’s driving:

  • Be respectful, but don’t be intimidated or back down. Understand the difficulty of the transition. “Your loved one may experience a profound sense of loss having to give up the keys, and not being able to drive can lead to isolation and depression,” Luxton said. If it is safe, try slowly transitioning the senior out of driving. For example, your loved one may stop driving at night or on the freeways or start using a shuttle service for specific trips.
  • Give specific examples of your concerns such as, “You have a harder time turning your head than you used to,” or “You braked suddenly at stop signs three times the last time we drove together.”
  • Find strength in numbers. “If more than one family member or close friend has noticed, the conversation is less likely to be taken as nagging,” Luxton said. A loved one may also listen to an impartial person, such as a doctor or driving specialist.
  • Help find alternatives. Research transportation options or offer rides when possible. Your local area Agency on Aging or Eldercare Locator may offer free or low-cost buses, taxis or carpools for older people. Some churches and community groups have volunteers who provide rides for older adults.

The bottom line

As you age, many factors can make it more difficult—and dangerous—for you to drive. But you can take steps to stay safe on the road. And if you can’t drive, other transportation options can help you get where you want to go. If you would like to connect with a geriatrician who can help you stay healthy as you age, Banner Health can help.

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