Older Drivers

Tips for Safe Driving

Make Adjustments

Staying safe on the road as you get older may mean making adjustments for age-related physical changes and health conditions and taking steps to improve your driving.

Here are some tips to help you drive safely if you experience changes in vision, hearing, attention and reaction time, or strength, flexibility and coordination. There are also tips on how to keep medications from interfering with your driving.

Make Sure You See Well Enough

There are several steps to take to make sure you see well enough to drive safely.

  • Have your vision checked every 1 to 2 years. An eye doctor can treat many vision problems. For example, surgery can remove cataracts.
  • If you wear glasses or contact lenses, ask your eye doctor or optometrist if you need a new prescription. Antireflective lenses and polarized sunglasses can help reduce glare. Always wear corrective lenses while driving.
  • Limit driving to daytime hours if you have trouble seeing in the dark.
  • Keep your windshield, mirrors, and headlights clean. Turn the brightness up on the instrument panel.
  • Adjust your seat height so you can see the road for at least 10 feet ahead of your car.

Many states require people who renew their driver’s licenses to have their vision tested. Such requirements have been shown to reduce deaths among older drivers. People who do not pass the test are told to get an eye exam.

To learn about an eye exam that adults 60+ should have at least once a year, see Comprehensive Dilated Eye Exam.

Check Your Hearing

You can also take several steps to make sure you hear well enough to drive safely.

  • Have your hearing checked every 3 years.
  • If necessary, get a hearing aid – and use it when you drive.
  • Keep the inside of the car as quiet as possible while driving. If the radio or conversations with other people are distracting, limit those, too.
  • Watch for the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. You may not hear a siren from a distance.

Think you may have a hearing loss? See what a hearing test involves.

Address Attention and Reaction Time

Here are some helpful tips to address changes in attention and reaction time.

  • Leave enough space between you and the car in front of you. Find a marker ahead of you, such as a tree or sign. When the car ahead of you passes this mark, count “1001, 1002, 1003, 1004.” Leave enough space so that you get to 1004 before you reach the marker.
  • Start braking early when you need to stop.
  • Avoid high-traffic areas if possible. Drive during the day and avoid rush hour. Find other routes with less traffic.
  • When on the highway, drive in the right-hand lane, where traffic moves more slowly.
  • Scan far down the road so you can anticipate problems and plan your actions.
  • Avoid left turns if they make you uncomfortable. Often, you can make three right turns instead one left turn to get where you want to go. If you must turn left, pay attention to the speed of oncoming traffic.

Address Physical Changes

These tips can help you address physical changes that may affect your driving

  • See your doctor if you think that pain or stiffness gets in the way of your driving.
  • Drive a car with power steering, power brakes, and large mirrors. Some people use special equipment that makes it easier to steer or operate the foot pedals.
  • Check your side mirror to eliminate your blind spot. First, lean your head against the window, then adjust the mirror outward so that when you look at the inside edge, you can barely see the side of your car.
  • Exercise or be physically active — it can make driving easier.

To learn about exercise for older adults, see Benefits of Exercise. Or visit Go4Life®, the exercise and physical activity campaign for older adults from the National Institute on Aging.

Check Your Medications

You also need to make sure medications do not interfere with your driving.

  • Read the medicine label carefully, and pay attention to any warnings. If the label says, “Do not use while operating heavy machinery,” do not drive while taking this medicine. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are not sure about a particular medicine.
  • Ask a doctor or pharmacist to explain how your medications could affect your driving. It might be possible to adjust the dose or timing to minimize side effects.
  • Do not drive if you feel lightheaded or drowsy.
  • Never drive after drinking alcoholic drinks or mixing these drinks and medications.

For more information on older adults and medication safety, see Taking Medicines Safely.

Improve Your Driving

If you find that your driving skills have declined, it may be time to make some changes. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving up the car keys. You might just need to change your driving habits.

  • Many older drivers “self-regulate.” This means they think about when it is easiest and hardest to drive, then make adjustments. For example, a person who does not see well at night may get rides from friends after dark. Living with limitations requires some planning ahead.
  • Defensive driving classes help lots of older adults brush up on their driving skills.  These classes can help older people feel more confident behind the wheel. A bonus: many auto insurers give premium discounts to people who complete driver-safety classes.
  • Consider driving refresher courses. Driving laws and techniques have changed since you first learned to drive. Driving refresher courses, taken online or in the classroom, teach participants about current traffic laws and driving skills that take into account age-related changes in vision, hearing, and other abilities. Training may last from 2 to 10 hours, depending on the sponsoring organization and format. Cost varies. To find out about driver’s education programs for older adults, check online under “driving courses for older adults” or in the yellow pages under “driving schools.”
  • Physical conditioning has been shown to help improve driver performance. According to one study, 12 weeks of exercises improved older drivers’ flexibility, coordination, and speed and reduced their driving errors.