How older drivers can keep driving safely

Neil Bartlett

Driving successfully means being fully engaged, no matter our age. When it comes to older drivers, there are steps they can take to keep driving safely.

Driving is an intricate combination of visual, mental and manual skills. “All those skills need to be in top form so a driver can handle the quickly changing environment on the road,” says Rhonda Shah, a specialist with the AAA national office in Heathrow, Florida who works with older drivers.

 “Driving ability has little to do with your age, but everything to do with utilizing those visual, cognitive and motor skills behind the wheel,” she says. “No two of us are alike. Some drivers will be as safe at age 85 as they are at 45.”

older driversIndeed, older drivers are among the safest drivers. Research shows they wear seat belts more often, drive under the speed limit and don't drink and drive. In addition, their decades of experience means they know how to fine-tune their driving by avoiding driving in hazardous weather, fast highways and congested traffic.

But as we age, our minds and eyes decline. “Skills and abilities required for safe driving deteriorate as we age,” Shah says.

How older drivers can keep driving safely

Older drivers can do three things to keep themselves on the road longer and safer.

1. Play the right video game

A study released in May 2013 studied individuals 50 and older. They played a video game called Double Decision for ten hours over a period of up to 8 weeks. At the start of the game, viewers are quickly shown a vehicle and a road sign. As the game progresses, players must identify and look for the vehicle and sign they saw when the game started.

Groups that played the game at least 10 hours, either at home or in a lab at the university, gained at least three years of cognitive improvement when tested after one year. A group that received four additional hours of training with the game did even better, improving their cognitive abilities by four years.

What's also promising about the study, says Fred Wolinsky, the study's author and a professor of public health at the University of Iowa, is that younger drivers can use the training to keep their cognitive skills from declining. Studies show that some aspects of age-related cognitive decline start in our twenties and thirties. Because that's true, games like Double Decision can help slow down that decline – and you don't have to be very old to see results.

2. Get regular eye checkups

As you reach age 60, it's more likely that you have an eye-related health condition, or you’re going to develop one. The American Optometric Association, for example, recommends that you should get annual eye exams starting at age 60. Getting a regular eye exam can greatly boost your chances of keeping your eyes in good condition - and keeping you behind the wheel.

“Often people forget that health conditions like hypertension, diabetes as well as medications can have eye-related side effects,” Shah says. “Regular eye exams are even more important as you age.”

Some eye conditions can lead to a permanent loss of vision, such as glaucoma and macular degeneration, which is retina damage that leads to vision loss. 

If you suspect something is amiss with your eyes or your general health, be honest with yourself, Shah says. Take the first step and see a medical professional. “Often problems behind the wheel can be remedied by making small changes,” she says. These changes include:

  • Limiting the times you drive, such as not driving at night or in fog.
  • Avoiding congested roads.
  • Making minor adjustments to your car's fit, such as adjusting the seat belt and head restraint.

3. Pay attention to subtle changes

There are a variety of vision conditions whose effects can be harder to detect but can affect our driving. For example, presbyopia is a loss of your eye's focusing ability that can start occurring in the early 40s. A full optometric exam will include a test for presbyopia.

Dr. Jason Clopton, director of the Center of Vision Development in Tennessee, points out that as we get older, we tend to move around less. As a result, the vestibular-ocular reflex, the balancing system that coordinates with our eyes, can deteriorate. This can lead to a false sense of motion. “A driver with this malady might see a car driving past them and think that they themselves are moving,” Clopton says.  

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