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Safe Driving Tips for Elderly Drivers

Updated on March 10, 2013

Know Your Limitations


"You can avoid reality but you can't avoid the consequences of avoiding reality." Ayn Rand may have been speaking to people who drive cars and are approaching or have reached "old age." According to an article entitled "Old Age," a person has traditionally been thought to enter that category at the age 60, and by the time a person is 65 they become known as elderly. It varies, of course, from society to society and it certainly changes over time. In 1908 the average life expectancy in the United States was 51.2 years of age, according to a demographic study at the University of California at Berkley. In 2008 it was 74.15. General Robert E. Lee was 58 at the end of the Civil War. He was known to his troops as "the old man." Yes, age is relative. I am 66 years old. I hate to think of myself as elderly, but I have a responsibility to myself, my family and everybody around me to recognize that I am getting older and that I have some limitations.

There is one thing that is certain about aging: your body is no longer as capable as it was when you were younger. Your vision may need correction, your hearing may be poor and your reflexes are certainly not what they were when you were in your twenties. You may have arthritis issues that create pain and affect your flexibility. Yet with all of these natural difficulties of an aging body we continue to participate in an activity that is both physical and mental -driving a car.

This very morning I almost had a head-on collision. A young woman (who was probably speaking on her cell phone) made a sudden left turn into a parking lot right in front of me. Fortunately my reflexes are still good enough that I was able to brake in time to avoid the collision. What would have happened if I was five or ten years older? I don't like to think about it but I must.

The Major Issues for an Elderly Driver

The first and most important issue for an aging driver to confront is reality. Nobody wants to admit they're getting older, and some stubbornly refuse to recognize their physical limitations as a matter of misplaced pride. This can be a tragic mistake. Here are some of the major driving hurdles we face with age, and a few recommendations for how to handle them.

1. Eyesight. Many elderly drivers have correctible eyesight problems and have no difficulty in daylight. Here are my limitations, and I ask you if you may share them. I have photosensitivity, especially when the sun is low in the sky in the morning and late afternoon. I have a pair of "wrap-around" sunglasses in the well on my car door. I also keep them around my neck with a lanyard when the sun looks like it will be a problem. They fit right over my prescription glasses with a simple movement. Night driving is a serious problem for me. On a moonlit night with a little help from a well lit street I can drive just fine. But If it's a moonless night or especially if it's raining, I will not get behind the wheel. I do have a pair of prescription anti-glare glasses in the car and they do help by cutting down on glare. But if I know there will be constant oncoming traffic my choice is not to drive.

2. Hearing. For some reason I haven't figured out, many aging people refuse to believe that their hearing is getting bad. Maybe it's pride, or maybe it's because hearing diminishes so slowly that they don[t notice it. Hearing is a sense that you need if you're behind the wheel, an obvious point, or at least I hope it's obvious. A warning horn or a siren may have never been sounded if you're not able to hear it. Hearing aid technology has improved dramatically over the past few years. Get your hearing checked and get a hearing aid if needed. It's better to swallow your pride than a steering wheel.

3. Reflexes. Driving is a physical activity and you command thousands of pounds of kinetic energy when you're in the driver's seat. Sometimes you have to act fast - very fast. Are your reflexes ready to respond to sudden dangerous stimuli? In the example I discussed above I was able to avoid a collision by quickly hitting my brakes. But I recognize that although my reflexes are pretty good, they're not getting better. When you see your doctor for a regular physical, make sure to talk about any reflex issues that you may have noticed. Your doctor will give you tests or, if necessary, refer you to a reflexologist for a consultation. If your reflexes are poor, driving may be a bad option.

4. Arthritis. With power steering and comfortable seats, modern cars don't often pose a problem for a person with arthritis as long as all you are doing is steering on a smooth road. The arthritis problem as it pertains to driving is the issue of sudden pain. If you have to perform a sudden maneuver such as quickly turning the steering wheel, your pain may cause you to have a sudden even if temporary loss of control.

5. Mechanical Breakdowns. When I was a young man a flat tire was no problem. Just take the spare out of the trunk, jack up the car, remove the flat tire, tighten up the lug nuts and I was good to go. This is no longer the painless scenario it once was. Buy an account with the venerable American Automobile Association (AAA) or similar company. If you have a breakdown just call for help. Oh, and I hope this goes without saying, CARRY A CELL PHONE! I actually know a woman my age who steadfastly refuses to have a cell phone. I told her a true story about myself (when I was a much younger man) having driven off the road in a snowstorm. My car slid down an embankment and there I was at the bottom of a ravine in a blizzard. I simply called 911 and the cops and they were there in no time. A cell phone, among other wonderful attributes, is a safety device. Do not, however, use it while you're driving, only when stopped.

"Beyond Driving with Dignity"

Beyond Driving with Dignity is a national program run by an organization called Keeping Us Safe ( Both the program and the organization have been recognized by the New York Times, the Kiplinger Retirement Report, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, The Huffington Post, and the National Institute on Aging. They have certified trained professionals across the country who can assist concerned family members by polite third party intervention when the time comes. They give an "Enhanced Self-Assessment Program" for elderly drivers. By all means, check out their website or call them at 877-907-8841.

Driving and aging are not necessarily incompatible, but the chances of incompatibility get stronger as you age. If there comes a time when you realize that driving is a dangerous activity for you, hang up the keys, or don't be upset with your loved ones if they do it for you. A few years ago as my mother's dementia worsened, I simply took her car away. I called the local police to let them know and they were delighted. Having responded to many a call that began with "there's a lost lady on my doorstep," they couldn't have been happier that I took the difficult step of depriving my mom of her beloved car. Shortly thereafter I arranged for her to enter an assisted living facility, but that's another story. By taking her car away I probably saved her life and possibly the lives of others.

Copyright © 2012 by Russell F. Moran


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