Fitness to Drive - Physical and Medical Considerations - Promoting Safety - Conversations with Older Drivers - Transportation Alternatives
Many people give very little thought to their driving abilities (or those of their loved ones) until they notice a problem. We tend to consider driving a skill we develop in adolescence that needs little additional attention until much later in life. In reality, there are many things people of all ages can do to improve the odds they’ll have a long and safe driving lifespan. Addressing these things early may help you or your loved one drive safely for longer.
Promote exercise and flexibility training
Strength and flexibility are often affected by the normal aging process. Reduced flexibility can have an impact on driving as individuals struggle to turn their necks to check traffic, blind spots, and to back up. Similarly, reduced strength can make it more challenging to control the vehicle and use enough pressure to apply the brake and gas pedals. Fortunately, regular exercise can help maintain the flexibility, strength, and coordination needed to keep driving safely.
How can you help?
- Encourage your loved one to stay physically active, stretch regularly, and work on strength training. Simple exercises are sufficient to maintain the needed strength and flexibility for safe driving.
- If you are local, you may find your loved one is more willing to engage in physical activity if you take the time to enjoy it with them.
- Model a healthy lifestyle by being physically active yourself.
- Share information on how exercise can help them drive safely for longer.
For driving specific exercise suggestions, The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence and the MIT AgeLab created the video below along with an accompanying guide. These exercises focus on flexibility and strength to help aging drivers maintain the physical skills needed to drive:
Car adjustments and maintenance
Being safe behind the wheel involves more than driver ability and skill. The vehicle itself plays an important role in safety, including how the car is adjusted to fit the driver and how well maintained the vehicle is. Simple adjustments and routine maintenance can help keep you, your loved one, and other road users safe.
As individuals age, they commonly lose some of their height and experience a change in their posture. These changes happen slowly over time. As a result, some seniors may not realize their car is no longer optimally adjusted for them. In order to drive safely, drivers must be able to see clearly and comfortably reach the pedals, which may require seat adjustments. Once the driver’s seat is adjusted for proper visibility, mirrors may also need to be adjusted to account for the change in driver position.
For individuals who need additional adjustments or hands-on assistance, AAA, AARP, and the American Occupational Therapy Association have collaborated on the CarFit program, an in-person event with trained technicians who can assist the driver with proper fit for safety.
How can you help?
- Help your loved one adjust their seat and mirrors correctly
- Make sure they sit 10-11 inches away from the steering wheel to prevent airbag injury in a crash. A piece of notebook paper is 11 inches long and can be a quick and easy reference.
- Help them locate a CarFit program in their area
Vehicle Safety Features
Today’s cars offer many safety features that can be helpful for aging drivers. For example, features such as rear back-up cameras and blind spot warnings can help individuals with decreased neck flexibility. Development of new safety features is happening at a rapid pace, making it challenging for many to keep up on the new technologies. In some cases, drivers are unaware of safety features included on their vehicles or may not understand how to use the new technologies. To find detailed information on available safety features, visit the My Car Does What website created by the National Safety Council and the University of Iowa.
If your loved one is in the market for a newer car, they may be able to take advantage of safety features that are beneficial for their particular situation. To help people navigate the sometimes overwhelming options, AAA has created a list of features that can be beneficial for aging drivers. This informational brochure can be located here: Advanced Driver Assistance Technology for Older Driver Safety
How can you help?
- Review the resources mentioned above.
- Help your loved one learn how to use the newer safety technologies.
- Help your loved one select a car with features that can help them overcome their particular aging challenges.
We all know car maintenance is important for preventing unnecessary wear and tear on the engine and extending the life of our car. However, vehicle maintenance is also important for safety reasons. Maintaining the tires (replacing when tread is low and maintaining correct tire pressure) can help the driver maintain better control of the vehicle. Replacing wiper blades regularly can increase visibility in bad weather. Routine maintenance can help protect against unexpected breakdowns while driving. All of these things combined add up to better safety and can also increase someone’s confidence behind the wheel. Some people, regardless of age, find these routine maintenance needs overwhelming or may lose track of when their last maintenance was completed. Caregivers can play an important role in ensuring maintenance is attended to.
How can you help?
- Remind them to make an appointment for routine maintenance.
- Offer to help them find a reliable mechanic or to communicate directly with the mechanic about maintenance, repair needs, and pricing.
- If you live nearby, they may feel more comfortable if you accompany them to the mechanic.
- Help them keep records on routine maintenance so they can better determine when they are due for service or wiper replacement.
Setting safe limits
Many older drivers reach a point where they are uncomfortable with or unable to drive safely under certain conditions despite being able to drive safely under most other circumstances. As drivers age, they often find it more difficult to drive at times of low light (such as dusk, dawn), at night, in bad weather, in heavy traffic, and on unfamiliar roads. Many of these drivers begin to limit their driving to the times and conditions when they are more comfortable. However, others may need caregivers to help determine appropriate safe limits on driving. These limits can help keep seniors driving safely for longer by eliminating the conditions that are more likely to lead to a crash. Limits will depend on the individual driver, based on their own unique circumstances.
Some common safety suggestions include:
- Drive only during daylight and fair weather. Vision changes are part of the natural aging process and can affect a driver’s ability to see clearly in times of lower light.
- Plan trips for off-peak traffic. Traffic congestion increases the physical and mental demand on a driver. High volumes of cars, pedestrians, and/or cyclists require greater attention, reaction time, and maneuverability.
- Take familiar routes. Knowing the roadway, where traffic lights or stop signs are, where merges occur, etc. can lead to greater confidence and less demand on the driver, as they are better able to anticipate necessary maneuvers and likely trouble spots.
- Drive on lower-speed roads. High-speed roads require faster reaction times, which tend to slow with age.
- Take shorter trips. Driving is both physically and mentally taxing. Decreased strength, flexibility, and reaction time that are part of the normal aging process can become even more challenging when fatigue sets in.
How can you help?
- Begin a conversation with your loved one about their comfort behind the wheel.
- Take note if your loved one has begun to self-regulate and use this change as an opportunity to start a conversation about their needs and abilities. This will help lay the foundation in the event that further limitations are needed in the future.
- Encourage your loved one to use some or all of the suggestions for safe limits above if they are starting to have trouble with less ideal driving situations.
- Remember that driving doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Many older drivers continue to drive safely during the day, on familiar roads, and in fair weather.