Experts Offer New Insights into Senior Driving Safety
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to prevent traffic deaths and injuries through research and education. The foundation has conducted many studies on older drivers, with the two-fold mission of extending the driving years of older adults, while ensuring they are safe drivers during those years.
The emphasis on safety is important. According to the foundation, 42 million senior drivers are on the road. Many are dealing with health conditions that make driving less safe, such as mental and physical impairments, vision and hearing problems and sleep disturbances. 200,000 drivers age 65 and older are involved in crashes each year, with 3,500 fatalities among them.
Extending driving abilities is also important. The foundation’s executive director, Dr. David Yang, says that when seniors can no longer drive, they frequently become less socially and physically active. “Older adults who give up the keys are more likely to suffer from depression than those who remain behind the wheel,” said Yang. “It is important that we find ways to keep older drivers in good physical health in order to extend their mobility.”
Here are some of the foundation’s most recent tips for senior drivers.
Exercise for driving safety
Arthritis, range-of-motion limitations, back pain and other health conditions that are more common as we grow older can make it unsafe to drive. Fortunately, many of these conditions can be improved, managed and even delayed by regular exercise. And the AAA experts says that exercise can improve driving safety even for seniors who are living with health challenges. Regular physical activity that includes muscle strength building and stretching exercises improves safety when steering, braking, parking, looking to the side and rear and putting on one’s seat belt.
“Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to produce positive results,” said AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research Jake Nelson. “Simple steps to keep active can keep you driving safely for longer.”
The role of medications
A study from AAA, Columbia University and the University of California, San Diego, took a look at the relationship between driving safety and the medications seniors take. The findings? Many seniors take medications that could make it unsafe to drive, causing blurred vision, fatigue, confusion—and this can increase the risk of a crash by 300%!
The researchers urge seniors to talk to their doctors about their medications, noting, “Nearly 20% of older drivers are using medications that generally should be avoided because they have very limited therapeutic benefit, pose excess harm, or both.” Said Nelson, “Ask your doctor and pharmacist as many questions as necessary to ensure you understand why you need the medications prescribed to you, and how they can affect your driving, especially if taking multiple medications.” Afraid to bring up the topic? Nelson provides reassurance: “Don’t be afraid to question healthcare providers. It’s their job to help you. And the answers may just save your life.”
About those high-tech dashboards…
Some of the features of today’s cars, such as backup cameras and lane departure warning signals, have improved safety for seniors. But some haven’t, reports the foundation: “New in-vehicle infotainment technology has the potential to increase comfort and extend mobility for older drivers—but first, it has to stop distracting them!”
Taking our eyes off the road for even two seconds to make a call, tune in the radio or program navigation doubles the risk of a crash—and older adults take their eyes off the road a big longer to do it. Voice commands could potentially help, but, says Yang, “Unfortunately, the complexity and poor design of some of these systems could cause more harm for older drivers, in particular, instead of helping them.”
This goes for drivers of every age. “This is a design problem, not an age problem,” says Nelson. “Designing systems to meet the safety and comfort needs of aging drivers would benefit all of us today, and for years to come.”
Until that time comes, AAA has a few suggestions for drivers whose vehicles are equipped with in-vehicle infotainment systems:
- Don’t use dashboard technologies while you’re actually driving, unless it’s an emergency.
- To become proficient in using your touch screen and voice command functions, practice ahead of time when you’re not driving.
- Avoid using center console controllers—the AAA says those are especially dangerous.
Time to talk about it
Here’s one more bit of advice from the AAA. Well before you think you might have to give up driving—“driving retirement,” they call it—talk to your family members and your doctor about your driving safety abilities, and alternatives to driving. The AAA says that 83% of older drivers fail to have those conversations, which makes it a lot harder when they do need to stop driving—and also raises the risk of a crash. Why take the risk? Start the conversation now!