Family Health Magazine - MODERN LIVING
Seniors & Driving
When is it time to gear down?
If you are an older driver, you can take steps to ensure you are driving safely and that your knowledge is up to date. It is important that you assess your current abilities. If you are considering not driving, planning ahead can put the transition in your control. Many seniors are going through this process, so know that you are not alone.
Age and the body
Some changes that occur as people age can affect driving. Aging can affect:
- Vision – changes to the eyes can make seeing more difficult. Most of the information you need for safe driving comes through vision.
- Hearing – reduced hearing can decrease your ability to hear key sounds, including sirens and horns.
- Cognitive abilities – your ability to process what you see and hear around you, decide on the correct action, and react quickly can decrease with age. The usual result is that your response time increases, meaning it takes you longer to do what you need to do.
- Mobility – you may have pain or decreased range of motion in your neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, hips, knees, and ankles. To shoulder check properly, you need an adequate range of motion.
- Strength – you may have less strength than you had when you were younger. Strength is needed to grip and turn the steering wheel, and press the gas and brake pedals. With a standard transmission, strength is needed to shift gears and use the clutch.
- Health conditions – issues including stroke, diabetes, a heart condition, arthritis, and Parkinson’s disease can affect your ability to drive.
- Medication use – you may require medications as you age. Many have effects that can alter your functioning.
- Visit your doctor and eye doctor for a regular health exam. Take care of your health.
- Talk with your doctor about how you can be at your best as a driver.
- Care for health issues that may affect your driving. To drive safely, you need proper physical and mental functioning. For instance, maintain a safe blood glucose level if you have diabetes. Eat nutritious foods, and exercise to maintain your strength and flexibility.
- Prescription and over-the-counter medications, and herbal products may affect your driving abilities. They can also interact, creating unexpected effects. Ask your pharmacist about the effects of everything that you take. Do not drive ‘under the influence.’
- If you have mobility issues, a referral to an occupational therapist may help. There are aids that can assist with driving. One is a knob that attaches to the steering wheel to help turn the wheel if you lack strength or the ability to grip. Vehicles can be fitted with hand brakes. Adjustments can be made to the controls to accommodate issues with an arm or hand.
- Do mobility exercises, especially for your neck and shoulders. This will help you to scan from left to right, and to shoulder check. Your torso and neck must be flexible, so that you can turn to see behind when you reverse the car. Just using the mirrors is not enough. How well do your legs work? Your right leg and foot must use the gas and brake pedals. In some vehicles the left leg applies the park brake, and works the clutch in a vehicle with a standard transmission. Getting in and out of the vehicle requires strength and mobility.
- Read your provincial driver’s guide to keep your knowledge of the rules of the road sharp and up to date. You can find it online (see For further information sidebar), or check at a registry for a print copy.
- Invest in staying current with your driving. People do this with careers and hobbies, so why not with the potentially dangerous activity of driving? Consider taking a driver education class from a driving school or agency that provides this service.
- Take a driving refresher. This is a good way to maintain or improve your driving skills. If you do have health problems, an assessment of your driving abilities and a refresher lesson can check whether they are affecting your driving.
Set up for safe driving
Your body changes as you age. Make sure that your vehicle fits you. Can you still reach the pedals comfortably and apply appropriate pressure? Can you see over the instrument panel and through the windows clearly? Are you able to reach the controls comfortably?
To operate the gas and brake pedals effectively and safely, you must be positioned the correct distance away from the pedals. Position the driver’s seat so that you are sitting comfortably with your right heel on the floor in front of the gas pedal. This allows you to pivot easily between the gas pedal and brake pedal.
Are you sitting too close to the steering wheel? This can affect your ability to steer properly. It is also dangerous if you are in a collision. You could be injured by the steering wheel or the air bag. The airbag will expand at about 300 km/h. Make sure you have about 25 to 30 cm (10 to 12 inches) between your upper body and the steering wheel.
Your left hand should be placed on the steering wheel at a nine to 10 o’clock position, and your right hand should be at a two to three o’clock position.
Always wear your seat belt correctly. Do not place the shoulder strap under your arm or behind your back. If it is uncomfortable, have it checked and adjusted if possible.
Adjust the temperature inside your vehicle so it is not too warm or too cold. An appropriate temperature will help you to stay alert.
Make choices for safety
Where do you drive? Consider where you go and how far, and your route. Choose the safest way to get to your destination. For instance, three safe right turns could be a safer choice that one difficult or dangerous left turn. You could plan your drive on roads with lower speeds and fewer vehicles.
When do you drive? Consider the time of day and rush hours. Can you avoid driving during busier times of day or after dark? Do you need to drive on days with extreme temperatures outside or in challenging weather? If you can, avoid driving on days that are very hot or cold, snowy, foggy, in freezing rain, or when there are icy road conditions. Keep a winter kit and safety items in your car, including a tire pump and reflectors.
Limit distractions while you drive. People in the vehicle, conversations and listening to the radio can all divert your attention. Never use a phone or text while driving.
Wear your sunglasses, prescription if necessary. This helps to reduce glare and protects your eyes.
How can you improve your driving safety?
Many seniors have never taken driver education. Some have never taken a road test. They may have applied for and purchased an operator’s licence, without ever being tested in a vehicle.
As a senior driver, you may be self-regulating. This means that you always take the same or familiar routes, at less busy times of day. However, if you were required to take a road test, it would be on an unfamiliar route.
You may never have had an issue with your driving, or experienced a collision, ticket or even a fender bender. Even so, you still might not pass a road test. You would be expected to do manoeuvres safely that you may have never done, and follow rules of the road you may not know. For instance, you must come to a complete stop at an intersection controlled by a stop sign, and know the right-of-way at controlled and uncontrolled intersections.
A brush up lesson or two can give you an idea of your driving ability. It can refresh your memory and teach you new skills. More education about rules of the road, and processes like lane usage, lane recognition, lane changing, and sign recognition, can help you to be a safer driver. It can help you with planning, making decisions, and choosing the safest route.
Your driving abilities and knowledge
Certain clues may be telling you that you need to look at your driving skills and knowledge.
- Do you feel confused or slow to respond, or that other drivers are pushing you to go faster?
- Do you ever feel overwhelmed when driving, especially in more difficult situations like intersections, rush hour, or places you have not driven before?
- Do other drivers honk at you?
- Do you have trouble finding your way or do you get lost?
- Are you having trouble seeing? Are parts of your field of vision blurred or dark? Do you have trouble with glare or seeing at night?
- Do you have trouble steering, or working the gas and brake pedal, clutch, or gearshift?
- Are you using both feet to work the gas and brake pedals? Using both feet can result in unsafe braking, steering and accelerating.
- Is it difficult to shoulder check so that you can see a vehicle or motorcycle in the blind spots?
- Are your turns too wide or too tight? Do you have difficulty judging time and space when turning?
- Do you have trouble finding or knowing the proper lane to turn from and into?
- Do you speed? Do you approach intersections too quickly?
- Do you do a complete stop at intersections controlled by a stop sign? If you are still moving even slightly, you have not come to a complete stop.
- Do you recognize school and playground zone signs? What are the required speeds and times?
- Do you know the right-of-way rules at uncontrolled intersections (T, 4-way)?
- Do you know the proper lanes for turning in a residential area?
- Do you contact the curb hard when parking?
- Do you use the park (emergency) brake when parking? It adds another measure of safety for you and your vehicle.
Common tendencies of seniors
Many senior drivers share certain unsafe habits. Do any of these sound familiar?
- Not shoulder checking – using the car’s mirrors does not replace a proper shoulder check. The blind spot is real, and can only be seen with a shoulder check. If you do not do a shoulder check, you could miss seeing another vehicle, or worse, a vulnerable motorcycle or bicyclist in your blind spot.
- Hesitating or stopping unnecessarily – this habit makes it difficult for other drivers to anticipate your actions.
- Oversteering or understeering – maybe you learned to drive on a car that did not have power steering, or your visual skills need to be improved. Being too close to the steering wheel can also cause this problem.
- Late, hard, abrupt or jerky braking – today’s power brakes may be different than those you once used. You might also be too close to the brake pedal.
- Tunnel vision – are you aware of road signs and general driving information? Not scanning from side to side and missing a school zone sign is an example. If you miss the sign, you will not slow to the posted speed.
Considering other methods of transportation
Other ways to get around
- taxi – options may include regular taxis or services catering specifically to seniors
- family and friends
- DATS (Disabled Adult Transportation Services)
Taking a driving refresher, or talking with your family about your driving ability, may make you consider whether you should continue. Some people are distressed about how not driving will affect their lives. Others feel less stress after making the decision to stop.
On the other hand, you may feel pressured to keep driving, even though you are not comfortable with it. If you feel it is time to stop, you should have the final say.
The money that you put toward your car can be used for other methods of staying mobile. If you no longer drive, you will not need to pay for:
• car payments and maintenance
• insurance and registration
• parking fees
• your driver’s licence.
You do not need to have a driver’s licence to have official government photo identification. Instead, you can obtain an identification card from a registry. Just like a driver’s license, the card will show your picture and identifying information.
Many seniors hesitate to ask family for assistance. However, for your safety, and the safety of those around you, it is important that you are honest with yourself. Have an open conversation with your family. Discuss how they see your driving abilities, and what help they might provide if you decide to stop driving.
Many people drive well into their senior years. Others use alternate ways to get around. Consider how you can continue to be a safe driver, and plan ahead for the time when you stop driving.
While effort is made to reflect accepted medical knowledge and practice, articles in Family Health Online should not be relied upon for the treatment or management of any specified medical problem or concern and Family Health accepts no liability for reliance on the articles. For proper diagnosis and care, you should always consult your family physician promptly. © Copyright 2019, Family Health Magazine, a special publication of the Edmonton Journal, a division of Postmedia Network Inc., 10006 - 101 Street, Edmonton, AB T5J 0S1 [ML_FHab16]