Healthy Aging

Older drivers – keep your keys!

When Britain’s Prince Philip, 97, made the news in early 2019 for crashing his Land Rover, and then giving up his driver’s license, it shined an uncomfortable light on older drivers.  That was especially true after news reports revealed he was not wearing a seat belt when his vehicle crashed into a Kia minivan, reportedly injuring the passengers.

Although 97 may seem like way too long to keep driving, safety experts say that age should never be used as the sole indicator of driving ability. 

That’s good, as the numbers of older drivers are increasing—by 2030, 1 in 5 drivers will be age 65 or older, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Most drivers want to hang onto those keys as long as possible, as they’re the passport to independence, travel and enjoyment. Safety experts say there is a plan to help you do just that.

One key?  Be aware of changes that can accompany age and seek out car features and expert help that can keep you a safe driver, says Elin Schold Davis, OTR, CDRS (certified driver rehabilitation specialist), the practice manager for community access and driver initiatives for the American Occupational Therapy Association.

“Features like adaptive headlights and improved mirrors are fabulous,” she says. She also advocates older drivers getting help in understanding their vehicle’s features, especially if it’s new or new to them, and getting a check up of their driving skills periodically. They can also get a free evaluation of how their car ”fits” them.

Age-Related Changes

Among the age-related changes that often affect driving—and the features and other information that can help—are:

Vision Changes: Night vision declines with age, and cataracts can sneak up on you, Schold Davis says. Yearly eye exams at this stage are a must, and so is awareness of warning signs, she says. “Cars might seem farther away than they are,” she says of drivers with compromised vision. If that’s the case, see your eye doctor ASAP. 

Cataract surgery can restore vision to where it was before, or even better. 

Adaptive headlights ”tune in” to how you are driving. When you turn the steering wheel, for instance, the lights turn along with you; if you speed up, the lights are raised to give you more visibility.

Arthritis: Whether arthritis affects your hands, knees, back or other areas, it is likely to affect your driving as well.

“Heated steering wheels and heated seats can be very comforting,” Schold Davis says. “A push button start [car] might be more comfortable.”

Reaction Times:  Yes, our reaction times slow with age. But some vehicle features can help. “They don’t compensate, but they assist,” Schold Davis says.

”Features like brake assist and forward collision warning (FCW) systems are a great support to driving safely,” Schold Davis says. In a car with brake assist, more force is applied during an emergency braking situation. FCW systems have sensors to detect slower moving or stopped vehicles and when the distance between the vehicle is so little that a crash is imminent, a signal alerts the driver, allowing braking or detouring.

Learning New Features

Older adults lucky enough to get a new (or new to them) car may be overwhelmed by all the new features. Take it slow, Schold Davis says. “When I bought my new car, I learned one thing at a time,” she says. “Now when I hear a certain beep, I know what it is. But that didn’t happen overnight.”

Lean on the experts if you need help. AAA has online Smart Features for Older Drivers. It lists suggestions for helpful car features, whether your issue is arthritis, excess weight, shorter stature, cognitive decline, less leg strength, diminished vision or range of motion problems. You may already have the features on your existing car, such as using the key fob instead of the key to ease pain in arthritic hands, so it could be just a matter of using them.

Another option is an educational session called Car Fit, sponsored by AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association. Sessions, listed on the site, are about 20 minutes and free. Experts see how well you ”fit” in your car—whether it is old or new—and make suggestions.

Then there’s My Car Does What, a handy online encyclopedia sponsored by the National Safety Council. If you have a new car, you can look up, by car make and model, the safety features and how they work. And you can also look up safety features in general and see how they work.

You can locate a driving specialist on the AOTA website for an evaluation of your driving. There is a fee.

Joining the Ride Share Team?

If you do need to drop out of driving yourself—short-term or long-term—ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber are options, of course.

Now, there is a new option for those who don’t have a smart phone, or would rather call their ride, like they used to hail a cab. It’s Go Go Grandparent, a service that links you with either Lyft or Uber by calling a toll-free number. 

Tell Us What Works For You:

What vehicle feature do you now say you can’t live without—and why?

What vehicle features do you wish would be on your next car or truck?

Have you thought about Plan B for when you do have to give up your license? How is that looking?

Photo: Barna Bartis for Unsplash

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