Senior Auto Safety and Driving Resources


Aging is a highly individualized process, and the effects of aging on driving ability can vary tremendously among senior drivers. This is why some 85-year-old drivers might be safe on the road while other 72-year-old individuals are unsafe drivers. In general, however, it is known that people of advanced age are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents or receive tickets for offenses such as running red lights, making an improper turn, or failing to yield. In addition, any accidents that occur are likely to involve serious injury for elderly drivers, whose bodies tend to be more severely impacted by collisions than the bodies of younger drivers. Aging typically causes changes in sensory and perceptual functioning, including loss of hearing and reduced visual acuity. The elderly are also likely to be on medications that can affect their reaction time, and some older people suffer from dementia that can impair their ability to drive safely.

In general, car accidents resulting in fatalities are statistically more likely to involve elderly individuals. Senior drivers are also known to be at a higher risk for dying from injuries sustained in a car accident. In 2006, nearly 30 million senior drivers were already on the road in the United States, more than 6,000 of which died in a car accident that year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In other words, 14 percent of individuals who died in car wrecks in 2006 were drivers of advanced age. Current estimates indicate that elderly drivers will have become approximately 25 percent of the driving population by the year 2030. Experts also predict that up to 25 percent of fatal car accidents at that time will involve elderly drivers.

For increased safety on the road, steps can be taken by elderly drivers as well as by their family and loved ones. Senior drivers should avoid distractions while driving, including eating or using a cell phone. Elderly individuals should also avoid driving when they are not at their best, such as when they feel sleepy or sick or have been recently injured. Drivers should maintain their hands on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 positions in order to be ready to adjust steering in an emergency. In addition, senior drivers should be careful to keep two or more car lengths between their front bumper and the preceding car. Loved ones can help elderly drivers obtain maximum effectiveness while driving by making sure that the seat, steering wheel, and mirrors are adequately adjusted. Family and friends can also monitor their elderly loved one’s driving on a regular basis to assess their continued safety on the road.

Experts suggest several ways to notice negative changes in the driving abilities of an elderly individual. First, the person might show indications of reduced vision, such as difficulties in reading road signs or unwillingness to drive at night. Second, be on the lookout for signals of dementia, such as getting lost on a familiar street or having trouble following navigational directions. Third, pay attention to verbal signals about slowed reflexes, such as comments about people or objects seeming to appear suddenly out of nowhere. Fourth, identify mistakes in driving, including hitting a curb, missing a turn, or doing anything that is risky to bystanders or people in the car. Finally, it may be time for the senior driver to relinquish the car keys if there is a recent history of involvement in multiple accidents.

When it’s time to approach an elderly loved one about their driving capabilities, it can be a difficult conversation to initiate. Begin by expressing love and concern for their own safety as well as the safety of others. Talk about concrete reasons why you are bringing up the subject, such as your own observations of their driving in recent days. You can also describe things you have noticed about their reduced hearing, eyesight, or reflexes in terms of what experts list as warning signals. It is most effective to approach this conversation as mutual problem-solving rather than in an accusatory or nagging tone.

Your elderly loved one may express concerns about how to live independently without being able to drive a car. You can assuage these fears by doing research ahead of time about transportation options in your area. Talk to family members or neighbors who can be available as needed to assist your loved one in doing errands, attending appointments, and meeting other transportation needs. If there is public transportation available, consider this as an option for getting where they need to go. In some locales, for instance, buses can make a special stop near the home of someone who would have difficulty walking to a bus stop. Seniors who are still commuting to employment might consider carpooling with nearby co-workers.

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