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10 Steps to Staying Safe on the Road — Senior Care

Written by 
Caroline Bodian

Article at a glance

  • Talk to your doctor about which medications and medical issues could potentially lead to problems with driving. To learn more about medicines and medical conditions before driving, read this section.

  • Have your eyes and ears checked by a doctor every year, and wear the correct prescription contact lenses, glasses or hearing aids. To learn more about getting your eyes and ears checked, read this section.

  • Input your destination into the GPS on your cell phone before you start driving to cut down on distractions. For more on eliminating distractions while you’re driving, read this section.

  • If you can, try to drive during daylight hours and in good weather conditions, because darkness and bad weather can further obscure your vision. For more on when it’s safest to drive, read this section.

  • If you’re driving with grandkids or other young children, make sure their car seats are properly installed (rear-facing for children under age one). For more on car seats and safety, read this section.

Everyone should make sure to follow car safety precautions before getting on the road, especially older adults (65+) who make up one in five drivers in the United States. As we age, we must take steps to accommodate our changing minds and bodies in order to keep ourselves, as well as those around us, safe. In older age, we may experience more medical problems that require medication, which can affect our daily activities. In fact, older adults are more than twice as likely to report having a medical issue that makes it hard to drive, compared with those between the ages of 24 and 64. You may consider some road trip safety measures–such as wearing a seatbelt–second nature, while others may require more effort or reminders. Fortunately, with cars becoming safer and older adults taking driving risks more seriously, the rate of crashes among those 65+ has decreased in recent years, and will hopefully continue to decline.

Review medicines and medical issues

Four out of five older adults take one or more medicines every day, which can mean a greater risk of driving impairment from side effects. Certain medicines and medical problems can make you feel drowsy or less alert than usual. They can also cause attention issues or slow your reaction time. Talk to your doctor about which medications and medical conditions could potentially lead to problems with driving. It may help to make a list of medications and supplements you’re taking before you visit your doctor.

Looking for a quick way to find out whether the drugs you’re taking might affect your ability to drive safely? You can enter the drug into a website called Roadwise Rx. Some drugs that are commonly known to negatively affect driving include cough medicines, certain antidepressants, sleep medicines, muscle relaxers, tranquilizers, decongestants, antihistamines and narcotic pain pills.

Knowing your physical limitations can also help you better equip your car to meet your needs. For instance, if your hands hurt when holding the steering wheel, it may help to get a steering wheel cover to make gripping it more comfortable. Other things to consider are safety features and dial size. An occupational therapist can help you choose a car that has features you may need, or help you adjust the features or dials on the car you have.

Get your vision and hearing examined

As we age, vision generally declines and we might run into common age-related vision problems, such as macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma. Make sure to get your eyes checked by a doctor yearly and to wear the correct prescription lenses or glasses. For those with very low vision, a doctor or occupational therapist may suggest bioptics, a system that attaches to prescription eyeglasses and allows the driver to see more clearly.

You’ll also want to visit the doctor regularly to get your hearing checked. Impaired hearing can limit your ability to hear honking, emergency vehicles or oncoming trains.

Be sure to wear a seatbelt

Before you start your car, ask yourself if you’re belted in. If not, go ahead and buckle up. If your seatbelt is uncomfortable, you can get a shoulder pad that slips over the belt, or adjust the belt according to what feels comfortable.

Put away your cell phone

Rings, pings and buzzes are not for the road. Put your cell phone on silent or enter your destination into the GPS on your phone and listen to the instructions, but don’t text or otherwise use your phone to talk while driving, as this can throw off your focus.

Map out your route before you get in the car. Even though you may see a map while you are driving, it’s best to just listen to the directions and not get distracted by checking the small map on the phone. Make sure to enter directions into your phone before you begin your drive so you’re not fiddling with it while driving. 

The idea is to keep your attention focused and away from potential distractions. Eating while driving can also divert your focus and should be done only once you’ve stopped. As a general rule, keep your eyes on the road and maintain enough distance between you and the cars ahead of you.

Drive in daylight and in good weather

Between headlight glare and general darkness, even older adults with good vision can have problems seeing at night. You should also avoid driving in bad weather conditions. If it’s raining, snowing or foggy, it’s best to wait until the bad weather clears before getting on the road.

Consider alternatives to driving

Safety comes first, so if you feel in any way like your driving may be impaired, it’s best to err on the side of caution and consider an alternative option to driving. You can ask a friend to give you a ride, use public transportation, or use a ride-share service such as Uber or Lyft.

Refresh your driving skills

If needed, update your driving skills. Taking a refresher course in driving can sometimes get you a discount on your car insurance. Organizations or community adult programs may also have courses you can take. The AARP offers courses that cover important areas such as reducing distractions, useful driving techniques and adjusting for age-related conditions.

Keep physically active

Though driving is a seated activity, it requires physical acumen. Turning the steering wheel and looking over your shoulder to change lanes both require flexibility and strength. Talk to your doctor about ways you can stay physically active by walking, stretching, or exercising.

Practice car-seat safety when driving with young children

If you’re driving in the car with your grandkids or any other young children, make sure the car seat is properly installed. Remember that rear-facing seats are required for children under the age of one (or longer depending on the height and weight of the child). Children can switch to forward-facing seats once they’ve reached a specified height and weight.

Don’t drink and drive

This goes for anyone of any age who is going to take the wheel. However, older adults may be even more limited in the amount of alcohol they can consume because the ability to process alcohol can diminish with age. Even one beer or glass of wine can make for unsafe driving, especially if that drink is combined with certain medications.

For some older adults, losing their driving skills can feel like a loss of independence, especially when they’ve been driving regularly for many years. Taking the proper safety precautions can help empower those concerned about declining driving abilities. Regularly going to the doctor for checkups, reviewing your medications, and cutting out distractions are all things that could help keep you feeling safe on the road. And if you do run into roadblocks that prevent you from sitting behind the wheel, consider the many alternatives, including public transportation, ride sharing and getting a lift from a friend, that will get you safely to your destination. 

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