3/3/2022 | By Megan Mullen

Seniors Guide looks at a ticklish issue for aging adults, driving a car. We offer seven driving safety tips for seniors and touch upon the options if the tips are not enough to guarantee road safety.

The trouble with aging is that no matter how much we deny it, our minds and bodies don’t function as they did in years past. We keep our frailties hidden as long as possible, but sometimes we recognize that our limitations are affecting our ability to drive safety. Or, sometimes, others recognize this sad fact. Whether we come to this realization on our own or it’s thrust upon us, we know we must take measures to guard our safety and that of others.

How you do this depends on your limitation. Sometimes, it’s possible to address them without giving up driving entirely. The necessary steps could be anything from getting a driving skills “tune-up” to giving up driving altogether, selling your car, and using alternative forms of transportation.

Driving safety tips for seniors

1. Take a Driver Safety Refresher Course

If you want to prolong your time behind the wheel, take this essential first step. Many people enroll in a driver safety refresher as early as their 40s or 50s. And why not? Enrolling in a course like this is about more than simply learning to compensate for sore joints and changes in vision or hearing.

These courses familiarize you with new vehicle technology that could prove very helpful. They also teach driving skills you might not have learned during (or remember from) your teens, and they evaluate your current driving ability in honest and informative ways.

When a senior should stop driving, and how to talk to them about your concerns

2. Choose the Right Car for Your Life Stage

The late-career and early-retirement years are ideal to start driving a new car—one with features that lend an extra degree of comfort and safety to the ride. These perks might have appealed to you earlier in your life, but at that stage, you were driving a “family car,” like an SUV or van. Or at another stage you might have bought an impractical (but fun and sexy) sports car.

Now, if you want suggestions on the best car for later in life, look at Kelley Blue Book’s annual “Best Cars for Seniors.” It identifies the latest new and used models and the features that should make at least a few of them highly appealing for senior drivers.

3. Have Regular Vision and Hearing Tests

Two of the most critical senses for driving safety – hearing and vision – tend to decline with age. Impaired hearing can keep someone from hearing an emergency vehicle, an approaching train, or an urgent honk. Age-related vision issues make it difficult to see clearly or drive after dark. Your eye doctor may recommend anti-reflective coating or night-driving glasses, or the doc may advise you to stay off the roads after dark.

Talk to your doctor about scheduling vision and hearing tests, even if you believe your hearing and vision are normal. Problems are often easier to correct if they are caught in the early stages.

4. Exercise for Energy, Strength, and Flexibility

A research study by the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence® and the MIT AgeLab focuses on four types of exercise: strength, range of motion, flexibility, and coordination – all of which are critical for driving.

The findings revealed that those over age 50 who exercised daily for at least 20 minutes over 8 to 10 weeks performed better behind the wheel. Dig deeper into the study, then check with your doctor to find out what type of exercise regimen is right for you. Of the driving safety tips for seniors, this one promises to improve your overall health, too!

5. Understand Your Medications

It’s not uncommon for people, especially mature adults, to take prescription medications. However, we tend to neglect or dismiss the various side effects, especially when we can simply lie down if we’re dizzy or stop eating if our stomach is upset. But what if you feel lightheaded while driving?

Give your body a day or two to adjust to a new prescription before you sit in the driver’s seat, and if symptoms continue, speak with your doctor about adjusting your dose or trying an alternative drug. But whatever you do, don’t drive while impaired!

6. Get the Proper Amount of Sleep

Impaired driving can also occur due to a lack of sleep, and aging is often associated with an increasing inability to get the right amount. As we grow older, our sleep changes due to the effects of an aging hypothalamus (the body’s “master clock”) and its suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN).

When the SCN deteriorates, it can disrupt circadian rhythms, affecting when and how often people feel tired vs. alert. For seniors, inadequate sleep can be risky, so you might need help from a sleep specialist or other healthcare provider if sleep deprivation is a problem. But for everyone’s safety, don’t drive until you get the go-ahead.

7. Compensate for Longer Reaction Times and Slower Reflexes

Since physical changes in nerve fibers slow their conduction speed, reflexes tend to slow over time. Moreover, the parts of the brain that handle motor control also lose cells over time. Even so, the effect of age on reflexes and reaction time varies from one person to another.

Of course, sometimes practice makes things better (not perfect), and it is occasionally possible to shorten reaction time. However, if practice proves unsuccessful, The DriveSafety Team has these suggestions for senior drivers:

  • Increase following distance.
  • Minimize left turns.
  • Get rid of distractions inside the vehicle.
  • Know the route before starting the trip.
  • Avoid busy highways and heavy traffic.
  • Review medications with your doctor.
  • Do what’s needed to remain awake and alert.

Did you happen to notice that several of these safety suggestions echo other points in this article?

Know Your Limitations and When to Stop Driving

If these driving safety tips for seniors are not enough to ensure safety – for you and others – on the road, it might be time to make one of the most challenging decision older adults must grapple with. It might be time to renounce your license, sell your car, and give up driving permanently. Since you might wonder how you will run errands or visit friends, we offer two simple answers:

  1. Explore transportation alternatives.
  2. Move to a senior community, where many resources are walkable and transportation options are among the amenities.

A change like this might hurt your pride, but doing so could save lives, including your own. We believe that once you’ve established new habits and discovered you’ll find other things to value – including the time to look out the car window as a passenger, saving time and money on car maintenance, or making new friends in a new community – right at your doorstep.

On a final note: hard as it may be to listen to others’ concerns about your driving, they are only doing it out of concern for you. So listen and take them seriously!

Related: Safe alternatives to driving

Megan Mullen

Megan Mullen is a freelance writer, librarian, and former college professor. Senior life is one of her niches (and a personal interest). Megan enjoys using her writing and research skills to create well-crafted web content and other publications.