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Are you safe behind the wheel?

Created date

January 25th, 2010

"Our bodies start to change in a way that affects our driving as early as age 35, says Katherine Freund, president and executive director of ITNAmerica, the first national nonprofit transportation network for the aging population. Your experience as a driver may compensate for changing vision, slowing reaction times, or other health changes. But at a certain point, around age 75 for many people, the functional changes of age overtake the benefits of experience.

Changes that affect driving

Your joints may get stiff, and your muscles may weaken. This can make it harder to turn your head to look back, turn the steering wheel quickly, or brake safely. Vision changes may make it harder to see clearly and make you more susceptible to glare. Your hearing may change, making it harder to notice horns, sirens, or noises from your own car. [caption id="attachment_7526" align="alignright" width="259" caption="(File illustration)"][/caption] People are often not aware that their health affects their driving, says Elliot Kroger, M.D., medical director atSedgebrook. ' Even if your response time is delayed by a few seconds, it can have major consequences on the road. Maybe you already know that driving at night, on the highway, or in bad weather is a problem for you. You should talk to your doctor about any concerns you have behind the wheel. Have your vision and hearing checked regularly and be physically active to maintain or improve your strength and flexibility. I discuss driving safety with people if they have a health condition that might affect their ability to react quickly behind the wheel, Kroger says. Conditions like Parkinson s disease, arthritis, a previous stroke, or taking multiple medications can contribute to driving difficulties. Talk to your doctor because some factors that affect driving might be reversible, like changing a particular medication. Kroger also recommends a driver safety evaluation for anyone concerned about driving. There are programs that can test many dimensions of driver responsiveness and then send a report to your doctor, he says. Check your local area agency on aging or your car insurance company to find a program in your community.

Tips for safer driving

First and foremost, always wear your seatbelt. If you and your doctor decide you can keep driving, plan to drive on streets you know. Take routes that will avoid risky spots like ramps, left turns at complex intersections, or congested traffic. Add extra time for travel if driving conditions are bad. Cut back on night driving if you are having trouble seeing in the dark. Don t drive when you are stressed or tired. Avoid distractions such as eating, listening to the radio, or talking on a cell phone. Keep your headlights on at all times and keep them clean and properly aimed. If your windshield or side and rear windows are foggy, use your defrosters to clear them. Check your windshield wiper blades monthly for wear or debris and replace them at least every six months. Talk to your physician about getting hand controls for both the gas and brake pedals if you have leg problems. Drive a car with automatic transmission, air bags, power steering, and anti-lock brakes. Properly adjust your rear- and side-view mirrors to eliminate blind spots. Finally, when in doubt, don t go out. Bad weather like rain or snow can make it hard for anyone to drive. Instead, use buses, taxis, or other transportation services available in your community.

Getting around without your car

Automobiles embody feelings of independence and free choice, Freund says. The ability to go where you want, when you want is what people love about modern transportation. Giving up your car, therefore, can be a big blow to your sense of self-sufficiency. There are more ways to get around than you think. For example, some areas offer free or low-cost bus or taxi service. Some neighborhoods also have carpools that you can join even if you don t own a car. Religious and civic groups sometimes have volunteers who will drive you where you want to go. And communities like those built by Erickson Retirement Communities provide a range of transportation services for residents. You can also take taxis or use other private transportation services. Sound pricey? Remember that it costs a lot to own a car. The average American household spends about 20 percent of its income on transportation, Freund says. This includes not only automobile payments, but fuel, maintenance, insurance, parking fees, and highway tolls. Giving up your keys is a hard decision to make, Kroger says. But you have to consider not only your safety, but the safety of others on the road. You don t want to be responsible for injuring someone else.

Additional resources

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety Area Agencies on Aging American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators ITNAmerica

Is it time to give up driving?

The main question you should ask yourself is Am I starting to get worried about having to drive? says Dave Melton, transportation industry director and driving safety expert at Liberty Mutual Insurance. It s important to be honest with yourself when deciding if you should keep driving.

Ask yourself:

  • Do other drivers often honk at me?
  • Have I had some accidents, even if they are only fender benders ?
  • Do I get lost, even on roads I know?
  • Do cars or pedestrians seem to appear out of nowhere?
  • Do I have trouble staying in my lane?
  • Do I have trouble moving my foot between the gas and the brake pedals, or do I confuse the two?
  • Have family, friends, or my doctor said they are worried about my driving?
For more on safe driving for seniors, ' visit '