Americans are living longer these days, and we want to maintain our independence and mobility for as long as possible. By staying current with new car technology, keeping driving skills up to date and caring for our bodies and minds, we don’t have to lose that independence.
Driving expert William Van Tassel’s tips to extend our safe-driving years…
The Elements of Driving
Driving consists of three components—perception, decision and action. You perceive a car braking ahead of you…you decide to decelerate…and you act by tapping your brakes. To maintain your skills in each of these three areas…
Perception. Our eyesight begins to diminish as early as our 40s. We start losing some of our peripheral vision…our ability to see well in low light declines…and cataracts, macular degeneration and other conditions can make things even worse. Steps to keep your perception sharp…
Get screened. Every senior driver should have his/her vision tested at least once a year and, of course, stay on top of eyewear prescriptions and any new vision problems.
Drive only when visibility is good. Many seniors are retired and therefore have flexible schedules. Take advantage of that by being selective about when you drive to avoid crowded roadways and poor weather conditions.
Brighten your headlights. You might be surprised at the improved visibility after simply changing to a new set of factory bulbs. Xenon or high-intensity discharge (HID) bulbs are especially good for seniors because they can improve visibility at night. Also: Be sure to clean your headlights regularly.
Modify your rig. If your peripheral vision has diminished, you can install special mirrors that help you see better out to the sides. If your neck hurts when you turn around to back up, have a rear-view camera installed. Caution: These cameras can take some getting used to—be sure to practice in a safe, off-street location before using a camera for actual backing-up and parking maneuvers. Important: These cameras are no substitute for looking directly at the area into which you are backing.
Use a spotter. Many older drivers wisely venture out only with a passenger to act as a second set of eyes.
Decision. Thanks to the wisdom that comes with years of driving, seniors actually have a leg up on younger drivers when it comes to decision-making. They recognize threats, anticipate the moves of other motorists and know how to react effectively. Still, those skills can be maintained throughout your life…
Stay up to date. All drivers—not just seniors—should consider taking a classroom-based refresher course every few years. These are available from AAA, AARP, National Safety Council and driving schools around the country, with courses typically taking six-to-eight hours total. Traffic laws, vehicle technology, signage, roadway design and driving techniques continue to evolve. Examples: Roundabouts used to be rare in the US but now are springing up in many areas. While they’re much safer than traditional intersections—because all drivers are moving in the same direction, and no drivers are turning left in front of others—many drivers panic the first few times they encounter them. Even basics such as how to hold the steering wheel have changed—driving instructors used to train people to grasp the wheel at the 2:00 and 10:00 positions, but now the safest grip is considered to be the 9:00 and 3:00 positions.
There are refresher courses specifically for seniors that focus on maneuvers that have proven statistically problematic for older drivers, including left turns, merges, right turns from a dedicated lane and lane changes.
Action. It’s no secret that our reflexes get slower with time, and a loss of flexibility and mobility make it more difficult to maneuver a vehicle. Steps to keep your mobility in top shape…
Modify. Make your vehicle as comfortable as possible so that you will feel confident when driving. Adjust the height of your seat and steering wheel and also your seatbelt. Add a seat cushion that allows you to easily swivel your legs when you need to look over your shoulder. Wrap an ergonomic grip around the steering wheel.
Maintain. Keep your car in top running order. Spongy brakes, bald tires and poor acceleration are just a few of the maintenance issues that can severely disrupt your ability to drive safely. If your budget allows, consider buying or leasing a latest-model vehicle that will provide you with the newest safety features.
Practice. If you do get a new vehicle with unfamiliar safety technologies, spend time with the salesperson becoming familiar with the features. Then take the car to an empty parking lot and drive around to get used to the new bells and whistles. Caution: Don’t become overly reliant on safety tech—it could make you less vigilant over time. Instead, continue to drive as if the vehicle did not have these new technologies—and use them to back you up if needed.
More Ways to Stay Safe
Exercise your body and your brain. A fit person is a fit driver. Whether it’s pickleball, Ping-Pong or yoga, any activity that helps you maintain balance, strength and flexibility also will help you behind the wheel. Also: Computer games can keep your mind sharp and help your hand-eye coordination.
Watch your meds. Senior drivers are less likely to fall asleep behind the wheel than younger drivers. But many older drivers take prescription drugs, some of which can cause drowsiness or brain fog. Ask your doctors which of your medications have such side effects, and arrange your schedule so you do not need to drive after taking them.
Face Change Head On
Older drivers don’t deserve their reputation for being dangerous. Statistically speaking, per mile driven, teens are more likely to be involved in a crash than older drivers. But around age 75, crash rates involving seniors start to rise.
Instead of waiting for loved ones to intervene or until you have an accident, monitor your own driving habits. Have you noticed other drivers honking at you a lot lately? Have you gotten a ticket for driving too slowly? Have you had some near misses? If so, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to hang up your keys, but it does mean that you should take an honest look at your situation.
Start with a professional in-car assessment of your driving skills. Your local driving school or AAA should be able to help you find one. Someone will ride with you for about 45 minutes, noting any deficits, and then will make recommendations that might include taking a class, in-car training or, if your situation warrants it, a clinical evaluation by a physician.
If you feel like your driving career is nearing its end, start planning now for how you’ll get around.