Senior Citizen's Guide digital books
Senior Citizen's Guide to South Jersey

Senior Driving
Maintaining Mobility

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in five people will be at least 65 years old by 2030, with nearly 10 million people 85 years old or older. Approximately 90 percent of this demographic will be licensed to drive and many families will be facing an uncomfortable discussion about their older loved one’s ability to drive.

Senior drivers are generally smart drivers. They know their limitations, so they drive less at night and in inclement weather. In fact:

Unfortunately, older drivers become more crash-prone with age, even though they may drive less. In 2008, more than 183,000 seniors were injured in crashes according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). With the exception of teenagers, older Americans have the highest crash death rate per mile driven, not because of a lack of skill but because older drivers are more fragile and their fatality rates are 17 times higher than those of 25-64 year olds.

Traffic safety is vital for drivers of all ages, but older drivers experience physical changes, such as changes in vision, reaction time and flexibility, which can affect driving ability. However, these skills deteriorate slowly over time, which is why it’s important for drivers to regularly “self-check” their driving skills.

Driving might seem easy and natural but it’s actually a complex, fast paced activity. It involves sensing information about traffic, road conditions, signals, markings, and then reacting quickly. A typical driver makes 20 decisions per mile and has less than a half a second to act to avoid a crash. Age affects all three steps in the process: sensing, deciding, and acting.

The most important physical aspect of driving is seeing. In fact, 85% of driving is visual and 15% of driving is skill. It is proven that after age 40, eyesight deteriorates and gets progressively worse in later years, even with corrective lenses. The ability to clearly distinguish details, not only at rest but also in motion is lost. This affects the distance at which roads signs can be read and the ability to quickly change focus between close objects, such as the speedometer, and those at a distance such as traffic signs on the highway.

Once the information is taken in through the senses, it has to be processed to make decisions behind the wheel and avoid possible collisions. Although older drivers process information and react more slowly than their younger counterparts, experience, mature judgment, and good driving habits usually make up for diminished skills. In the absence of dementia or other serious illness, judgment skills do not deteriorate with age.

However, it is important to keep in mind that making good decisions is different from carrying them out. Older drivers cannot perform fast-paced motor activities as well as younger drivers. But when given more time they perform fine, which is why we see older drivers driving at a slower pace and using the brake more frequently. Still, it is important to remember that older drivers tend to respond more slowly in a crisis. Weaker muscles, reduced flexibility, and limited range of motion can restrict the ability to grip and turn the steering wheel, press the gas pedal or brake, or reach to open doors and windows. Moreover, 50 percent of the middle-aged population and 80 percent of people in their 70’s suffer from arthritis, which makes turning, flexing, and twisting painful.

With some simple adjustments, maturity and foresight can help senior drivers minimize risks and maintain mobility. Here are some simple ways to stay safer on the road:

If you’re unsure of your ability to perform tasks required for driving, ask a trusted friend or family member to monitor your driving. The decision to stop driving is a tough one, but most seniors want to make a responsible choice that protects themselves and others.

In the past few months, have you:

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may need a thorough evaluation by a physician, occupational therapist, certified driver rehabilitation specialist or other healthcare professional, to assess your driving ability.

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