To paraphrase the words of Hamlet, “To drive or not to drive, that is the question.”
One of the issues most fraught with emotion, especially for seniors, involves giving up the car keys.
It’s a complicated situation.
As we age, our bodies undergo changes. Vision and hearing can weaken. Attention span may shorten. Physical fitness declines. Reaction time may slow. Changes in the brain may lead to reduced cognition.
Some of these changes have the potential to make driving unsafe in every circumstance. Other changes can create risks only if the older person chooses not to address them.
Changes in vision can create big problems if not addressed. An older adult may not be able to read street and highway signs, see lane lines and other pavement markings, or detect other vehicles and pedestrians, especially in low light conditions. It was recently reported that weakened depth perception is among the top five diagnosed ailments among aging baby boomers. The loss of depth perception is particularly acute when driving in the dark. Discomfort from headlight glare is another concern and can be both unpleasant and distracting.
The USAA Educational Foundation’s excellent brochure, Driving Safely while Aging Gracefully, recommends that everyone over the age of 60 have an annual eye exam to check for vision changes, cataracts, and other diseases of the eye. Those who rely on prescription eyeglasses should always wear them when driving.
Car maintenance is a big factor in visibility. Keeping the windshield, mirrors, and headlights clean, checking headlight aim when the car is serviced, and keeping the brightness up on the instrument panel all contribute to safer driving. Some older adults may need to make adjustments in seat height or add a seat cushion in order to see at least 10 feet in front of the car. This is important for visibility and to reduce headlight glare from oncoming cars.
Declining physical fitness can have more of an impact on driving skills than you might think. Everyone who drives a car needs strength to turn the steering wheel, flexibility to twist the body and turn the head to the left and right to look for traffic, and coordination to move the foot quickly from the gas to brake pedals.
For older drivers, a car with an automatic transmission and power steering, brakes, windows and mirrors can make it possible to keep driving longer. Assistive devices are also available. A Certified Driving Rehabilitation Specialist can prescribe additional equipment that will help older adults who have lost physical strength to continue operating their cars.
A vehicle’s mirrors are more important than you might think. Take time to adjust an elderly loved one’s rear view mirror and set the focus of side mirrors outward so the sides of your car are barely visible. A wide-angle side mirror can distort the distance between the driver and cars approaching from either side. Older adults may want to practice judging distances in the mirror before driving.
Hearing is another important factor in driver safety. If hearing aids have been prescribed, it’s vital that they be worn while driving. While behind the wheel, older adults should stay alert to sirens and traffic noise, even if it requires limiting conversation with passengers and turning off radio or other devices. Everyone should avoid using a cell phone while driving, and it’s especially important for older adults. Wind noise from an open sunroof or window can also affect hearing aid performance, so it’s a good idea to keep them closed.
Few people look forward to the day that they can no longer drive. In our culture, driving is synonymous with independence. However, with a little knowledge and a little planning, the older adults in your life stay behind the wheel longer and safer than ever before.
Are you worried about the driving skills of an elderly loved one? Are you having trouble talking to your loved one about your concerns? The Flammia Elder Law Firm may be able to help. Just give our office a call to ask about skill assessment resources and transportation alternatives.