Canadians are living longer, and driving longer. As the Baby Boom retires, the number of senior drivers on the road is increasing too. And while more experience is a good thing, so is awareness that some age-related changes are inevitable.
Those changes don’t have to mean the end of the driving life – these tips for seniors and their loved ones are designed to show you how to stay safe behind the wheel, maintain confidence, and take concrete steps to modify driving habits if needed.
Assess Your Driving Skills
One of the most important things seniors can do to maintain their driving independence is to regularly assess their driving skills and physical and mental abilities in order to pinpoint areas for improvement. Drivers can then take steps to brush up on relevant driving skills – such as merging onto a busy highway – or counteract physical and mental changes in order to continue driving safely.
How Aging Can Affect Driving
As we age, our physical and mental abilities change, and some of those changes – including our vision, hearing and ability to react quickly – can affect our driving. These changes generally happen very slowly, so it’s important to evaluate them early and often to ensure we understand how our ability to drive is being affected, and then take steps to ensure we can continue to drive safely
Having good vision is a critical factor in our ability to drive safely. As we age, various changes to our vision happen over time, and many of these can affect our driving: the amount of light we need to see clearly, the narrowing of our field of view, and our ability to focus. CAA has compiled tools and information to help you to understand the vision changes that occur as you age.
In Ontario, drivers are required to have their eyes tested periodically when they reach 80 years of age in order to have their licence renewed. But even if a driver passes the eye exam, it’s still important to understand how vision changes can affect driving. Although we might be able to see clearly in the eye doctor’s office, our ability to see in the dark may be diminished, so it’s important to take steps to ensure we can drive safely at night.
As we age, we need more light to see, which can make driving at night more challenging for seniors. By age 60, we need three times as much light to see as we do at age 20, so it’s much more difficult to see objects in the dark.
That’s because over the years, pupils get smaller and don’t dilate as much in the dark, making it harder to see. So our vision may test well in the doctor’s office, but still be reduced on the road at night, where lighting is poor. This affects our ability to see things such as people walking along the side of the road and reflective road signs and markings. It also affects our ability to manage glare.
Changing Focus & Field of View
We all know, that as we age, vision changes often necessitate corrective lenses or eye surgery to keep our vision as sharp as possible: almost all of us need corrective lenses at some point.
If any driver has trouble with their vision and notices a change in what they see while they’re driving, it’s important to get tested by a professional to determine potential nearsightedness or farsightedness – or both.
Age also affects our field of view, or how far we can see clearly. The tool below illustrates how changes to our field of view affect our ability to see things that might be a safety risk on the road.
Other Common Vision Problems
Our vision changes gradually as we age and can be hard to notice. That’s why it’s important to have annual vision checks, both to ensure our lens prescription is correct, and to check for common eye conditions related to aging such as glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts.
We all know that our hearing is an important part of our ability to drive safely. After all, if we can’t hear another driver honking a warning about an imminent fender-bender, we might not react to the situation in time. The Canadian Hearing Society estimates that in Canada more than 60% of seniors over the age of 65 have age-related hearing loss.
Symptoms of age-related hearing loss can include:
- Difficulty hearing things in noisy areas (such as in traffic).
- Difficulty distinguishing high-pitched sounds (such as emergency vehicle sirens) from one another.
- More difficulty hearing men’s voices than women’s voices.
- Voices sound mumbled or slurred.
- Ringing sounds in the ears.
If any driver has hearing loss, it’s important that they take steps to treat it so that they can continue to drive safely. There are numerous effective treatments for age-related hearing loss, including surgery, or simply being fitted for a hearing aid – and many of today’s hearing aids are virtually invisible to others.
Motor Skills and Reaction Time
As we age, many of us find that our reaction time slows, making it harder for us to manage dangerous driving situations such as another driver pulling out in front of us unexpectedly. Slower reaction times can be caused by diminishing motor skills – a side-effect of common age-related diseases, such as arthritis – and by our decreased ability to concentrate.
Fitness and Driving
In order to drive safely we need to be physically fit enough to reach for and buckle our seat belt, turn to check blind spots, grip and control the steering wheel, depress the correct foot pedals and operate controls such as those for headlights and windshield wipers.
Our mental fitness is also critical to our ability to drive safely. We need to be able to remember directions, recognize traffic signs, and react to all the incoming data that we have to process quickly in order to drive, such as what other cars are doing, when traffic lights change, and when people suddenly step out in front of us without warning.
As we age, our flexibility and strength can decrease, which can have an impact on our ability to drive. It can become more challenging to look around to see if a car is in our blind spot prior to changing lanes, to turn the wheel sharply to avoid an impact, or to brake quickly.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) suggests that Canadians 65 years or older take part in at least 2.5 hours of aerobic activity each week, spread out into sessions of 10 minutes or more. It also suggests it is beneficial to add muscle and bone strengthening activities using major muscle groups at least twice a week, to help maintain posture and balance
As we get older, our brains need more time to process information, which can affect our ability to read traffic signs and react to things like pedestrians and emergency vehicles. And although mature judgment, years of driving experience and good driving habits can often compensate for some diminished cognitive abilities, it’s still a good idea to take steps to keep our brains fit.
While older minds may be just as sharp as younger ones, they often react more slowly. (On average, the human brain begins to slow down slightly around age 30.)
But we can slow that decline by actively engaging our brain in mentally stimulating activities.
Activities such as playing cards and doing jigsaw puzzles, crosswords or Sudoku are fun, interactive and they help keep our mind sharp. There are also online memory and mind stimulation games available.
Here are some helpful hints that can aid you in making the right decisions:
- CHANGE YOUR DRIVING HABITS – if you are at all uneasy on the road, think about changing how, when and where you drive. Try driving fewer kilometers, less often and more slowly. Plan your trips more carefully by planning ahead. Drive less at night, during rush hours and in the winter.
- CONSIDER A REFRESHER COURSE – in many communities there are organizations offering driver education courses for older people. These programs are designed to help seniors improve their driving skills.
- WEAR YOUR SEATBELT – Wearing your seatbelt could help prevent crippling injury or even death. Older drivers are more likely to be killed or injured in a traffic accident due to more fragile bones and the reduced ability to withstand trauma. Seatbelts distribute the full force of the impact across the strongest part of the body, helping to prevent you from hitting the steering wheel, the windows, or the dash. They will also keep you from being thrown from your vehicle. Avoid excessive slack in the seatbelt and position it over the shoulder, across the chest, and low on the lap. Remember – wearing a seatbelt is not a matter of choice, it’s the law.
- DRUGS AND DRIVING – Many drugs can influence your driving vision. These include prescription cold and sinus remedies, sleeping pills, tranquilizers, sedatives and pain killers. Even Aspirin, when used extensively, can adversely influence vision. Whatever the drug, know its side effects before getting behind the wheel.
If you ride on a bus, remain alert and brace yourself if the bus is slowing down or turning. Watch for slippery pavement or other hazards when entering or leaving the bus. Have fare ready to prevent you from losing your balance when fumbling for change. Don’t carry too many packages, and always leave one hand free to grasp railings. Allow extra time to cross streets, especially in bad weather