Releasing the Driver Within: Seniors Must Yield to Declining Ability for Safety on the Road


Drivers wanted. Built for the road ahead. Grab life by the horns. Inspiration comes standard. The drive of your life. Like nothing else on Earth.

All of your life, automobile manufacturers drop slogans on you like confetti, convincing you that driving is a celebration of your independence. Amid the sleek lines of the latest cars, trucks and SUVs and the blur of Americana in advertising campaigns, consumers learn that driving might just be the new American Dream. So convinced of that dream are some that they are unwilling to relinquish the steering wheel, even as age prevents them from operating a vehicle safely.

Drivers must make about 15 major decisions for each kilometer driven, each requiring almost immediate attention. Older drivers must adapt their habits to accommodate the changes that occur with aging to continue driving safely for as long as possible. —BCAA Traffic Safety Foundation

Not recognizing the signs of impaired ability can be deadly, however, as was the case three years ago when an elderly driver plowed through a Los Angeles farmers market killing 10 people and injuring more than 70. George Russell Weller, currently 89, blamed pedal error. Jurors recently found Weller guilty of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. He faces as many as 18 years in prison.

National and local news stations are spotted with similar incidences. Driver specialists and health officials routinely report that with age, driving abilities decline. In addition, senior drivers are more likely to suffer serious injuries and hospitalization in car accidents, compared to younger drivers, cites Helpguide: Aging Issues (

But how do you know when to hand the keys to someone else?

According to the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, most changes in driving ability occur slowly over time and many drivers are able to make up for deficits. Some abilities that may start to deteriorate include physical functioning, vision, hearing, attention span and reaction time. Serious illnesses or diseases may expound the problems. To be sure driving abilities are up to par, senior drivers should get routine driving evaluations.

Some adaptive devices might make driving easier for conditions such as multiple sclerosis, stroke or diabetes. But adaptive driving for age-related impairments involves strategy. Consider the following tips for safe driving, provided by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

Decreased Physical Impairments?

  • Ask your doctor about starting a walking program or stretching exercises to improve fitness.
  • Get examined by a doctor for pain, swelling or stiffness in the feet, arms, legs or neck.
  • Re-aim side mirrors to eliminate blind spots.
  • Keep alert to sounds outside the car and limit passenger conversations and radio noises.
  • Watch for flashing lights of emergency vehicles, especially if you have trouble hearing sirens at a distance.

Vision Problems?

  • Keep your glasses prescription current and wear glasses at all times.
  • Do not wear sunglasses or tinted lenses at night.
  • Don't tint your car windows, and avoid driving at dawn, dusk or night if you are sensitive to light.
  • Keep windshield, mirrors and headlights clean and get your car inspected.
  • Choose a vehicle with larger dials and easy-to-read symbols and turn the brightness up on the dashboard.
  • Sit high enough in the seat so that you can see the road for at least 10 feet in front of the car.

Decreased Attention?

  • Plan your route and drive only on roads with familiar road conditions and traffic patterns.
  • Drive during the day and avoid rush hours. Find alternative routes with less traffic.
  • Keep a safe distance between you and the car ahead.
  • When approaching intersections, look to the sides of the roads and directly ahead.
  • Try to make left turns at intersections where green arrow signals provide protected turns.
  • Scan far down the road continuously to anticipate future problems and plan your actions.

Pay attention to your reactions. If you become frustrated while driving, don't be afraid to ask for help. To borrow another automaker's slogan — Think. Feel. Drive.


This article originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of Mobility Management.

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