ColumnistsConsumer's Corner

When Are You Too Old to Drive?

Families often wonder whether it is safe for an older adult to keep driving.

There are more than 40 million licensed drivers in the US older than 65 and more than two million of them are here in New York state. And many — probably most — are safe. They have years of experience handling various road and traffic conditions.

Older drivers are more likely to obey the rules of the road and to wear seatbelts.

As people age, many factors can affect driving ability.

Bone and joint problems — Older people often develop arthritis, stiff joints and stiff muscles. This impairs the ability to turn to look behind, to control the steering wheel or brake quickly.

Vision problems — Eye diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy become more prevalent with age. Poor vision interferes with the ability to detect people, animals and objects. It makes it harder to see in the dark. Cataracts can lead to glare from oncoming headlights.

Hearing loss — Age-related hearing loss affects the ability to detect horns, sirens or noises coming from the car itself. Perhaps you’ve been behind a driver who leaves the turn signal on because they can’t hear the blinking noise.

Medications — Many medications lead to drowsiness or decrease alertness. Even some over-the-counter drugs such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) cause drowsiness.

Slower reaction time

Medical conditions — Dementia, Parkinson’s disease or neurological deficits from a stroke are a few of the diseases that impact driving ability.

There are ways to help compensate for some of these problems. Be sure to wear glasses with an up-to-date prescription. And clean the lenses. If you wear hearing aids, use them while driving. Stay physically active to maintain strength and flexibility. Be sure your car is in good running condition. Avoid driving in the dark if you have trouble seeing at night and avoid times near sunset or sunrise to avoid glare. (Of course, in Central New York that only applies if there is actual sunny weather!). Don’t drive if you are feeling sick, stressed or tired. Plan your timing to avoid heavy traffic when possible. Stay home in bad weather. Wear seatbelts. Avoid distractions such as eating or using a cell phone. Scrape and clean your windshield and windows.

What are some signs that an older driver might no longer be safe on the road?

– Multiple accidents, dents and scrapes.

– Two or more traffic tickets within two years.

– Increases on car insurance premiums due to driving issues.

– Complaints by neighbors and others about unsafe driving.

– Recommendations from a doctor to quit driving or modify driving habits.

We live in a very car-centric society and it is not easy to give up the independence that comes from being able to drive where you want to go when you want to go.

Unless you live someplace with great public transportation or within walking distance of everything, it means depending on others to get around, to shop, to run errands. Before broaching the subject with a family member that is no longer a safe driver, be prepared. Find out what resources in the community could help with transportation. Avoid confrontation. Stick to the issue of driving ability, not age. Focus on safety. It might be necessary to approach the topic gradually over time to gain buy-in. But for your loved one and for your community, don’t ignore risky drivers.