Over and over, we hear reports of older drivers who are involved in car accidents; mistaking the gas for the brake, not seeing a passing motorist or turning in front of oncoming traffic. We might shake our heads and wonder why people continue to drive beyond the point when they are safe behind the wheel.
It is important to realize that most older drivers are safe drivers. They are more likely to wear seatbelts and less likely to speed or drink and drive. At the same time, we must recognize that the changes that come with aging require adjustments in driving. These might include limiting driving at night or in inclement weather, going out of the way to find an intersection with a light to turn left safely in front of traffic, or driving only familiar routes. Most drivers make these adjustments on their own, over time.
However, as previously good drivers hit their 80s and 90s, a growing number will gradually lose the basic cognitive abilities for safe driving. Those with real cognitive changes like dementia are often least able to see their changes in driving ability. This is when careful planning and family discussions become important.
The problem with most discussions about driving is that they begin too late; often when the options are limited to all or nothing. Too many of these discussions begin with “Give me your keys!” The decision to turn in the keys and stop driving should be part of the last discussion we have about driving, not the first. Plan far ahead: Discussion about these aging changes should come early — before there is a need to stop driving.
Recognize that vision, hearing, flexibility, strength, etc. are all affected by aging. It is the driver’s responsibility to have all of these areas checked. As we age, it's a good idea to keep on top of how aging is affecting our driving ability, and these steps will help:
* Go to the eye doctor regularly.
* Get your hearing checked.
* Exercise often is the best way to maintain your abilities – even the ability to drive.
* Turn your head from side to side – this simple exercise helps maintain the flexibility you might need to be able to look for a passing car or to check your blind spot. Too many older drivers begin to rely on mirrors instead of looking for themselves when flexibility decreases.
* Make sure your car “fits” you. Check out the CarFit website (www.car-fit.org) for a list of local car fit events and helpful videos to make sure your car is safe for you.
* Take a safe driver course - it may qualify you for insurance discounts.
* Enroll in a driver assessment or re-education course like Sarasota Memorial's Driver Evaluation and Rehabilitation Program. (Call 941-917-7600 for more information or to make an appointment.)
Finally, have a plan. If the day comes when you have to stop driving, how will you maintain a quality of life? Too many people believe that giving up the keys will put an end to their independence and social life. This does not have to happen if you plan ahead. There are alternatives, including, cabs, Uber, the local bus system, handicapped door-to-door transportation and the ITn Transportation Network that offers rides and assistance for an annual membership fee. Look into your options ahead of time. This will make any decisions that affect your driving safer for you and others on the road.