Part of getting older is not being able to do some of the things you used to. As we age, our vision deteriorates, our reaction times slow and our muscles can stiffen. All of these can impact how we drive. Unawareness of changes in your physical abilities and not compensating for those changes when you drive is a recipe for disaster. By staying on top of your abilities, you can lower your chances of having a car accident.
Common changes in vision associated with age include blurred vision, difficulty seeing in low light or dark conditions, loss of peripheral vision and difficulty seeing contrasting colors. For older drivers, that can mean difficulty judging distances, trouble seeing well at night, dawn or dusk and challenges seeing traffic signals, street signs, other vehicles and even pedestrians.
Many seniors recognize changes to their vision and react accordingly. In 2009, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab released a study that found most older drivers limit trips at night, during bad weather or when traffic is likely to be heavy. That’s a good first step, but it’s not a definitive solution because sometimes, you’ll simply have to drive when conditions aren’t ideal.
If you’re older than 61, the American Optometric Association recommends getting a comprehensive eye exam annually. If you wear glasses or contacts, keep the prescription up-to-date. If you notice a sudden change in your vision, don’t wait for your annual exam. See your doctor as soon as possible.
Most people’s reflexes get slower as they age. That’s bad news for both your tennis game and your driving. Split-second decisions and actions can mean the difference between having and avoiding an accident. As your reflexes slow, you’re going to have to take steps to make sure your driving ability is maintained.
Avoiding trips in heavy traffic or high-speed traffic is a good way to compensate for slower reaction times. Whenever you hit the road, make sure to leave plenty of following distance between you and the car in front of you. The more distance you have, the more time you’ll have to recognize and react to danger. Always have at least two seconds of travel time between your front bumper and the rear bumper of the car in front of you.
Sometimes, you can feel your age in your bones. If you have stiffened with age, especially if the affected muscles and bones are in your neck, back or torso, your driving may be affected. Anyone who gets behind the wheel should be able to turn their neck and look over both shoulders without having to lean forward or twist at the waist. Leaning forward and twisting at the waist to look behind you while in a forward-moving car takes your eyes of the road in front of you for too long. By the time you return to looking forward, traffic in front of you may have slowed or stopped.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the most common error older drivers make is failing to yield the right-of-way. That’s because older drivers with stiff muscles don’t always turn their heads to check their blind spots, or to see oncoming traffic when they’re making a turn. To lessen your risk, stay limber. Regular exercise and daily stretches can keep your muscles loose.
The hardest part about how our abilities change as we age is that we will likely never recover the same level of functionality we once had. While changing driving habits and staying on top of physical changes is a good first step to staying safe, at some point, driving simply becomes too risky. Be realistic about your abilities. Though giving up the keys is difficult, it’s a small price to pay for staying safe on the road.