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How Senior Drivers Can Be Safer on the Road

Learn to recognize and adjust for slower reaction times and decreased flexibility as you age.

Simple steps can help you stay behind the wheel longer.

SeventyFour / Shutterstock

The average driver makes about 20 major decisions during each mile driven—and often has less than one-half second to react to avoid a potential collision.

Even if you have excellent judgment while driving, it may be challenging at times to integrate information from several sources at once. This can slow driver reaction time and inhibit safe driving in dangerous situations. It’s also possible that pain or stiffness in muscles or joints could make it difficult to react quickly during emergencies. A combination of treating the cause and changing driving habits can help you drive more safely.

How to Improve Motor Skills for Driving

Safe driving is as much a physical activity as it is a mental one. In addition to physical strength and flexibility, coordination is required for safe driving. Together, these abilities define your motor skills.

As you get older, flexibility decreases, which means you may have to reposition mirrors or make a more conscious effort to turn from the waist to see behind you.

Your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle depends, in large part, on motor skills used to reach for and buckle your safety belt, turn to check blind spots, grip and control the steering wheel, depress the correct foot pedals, and operate other controls such as those for headlights and windshield wipers.

To compensate the effects of aging on motor skills, you can:

  • Improve your flexibility, which will help prevent injuries and excessive fatigue and allow you to move with greater ease;

  • Select a vehicle with senior-friendly features, such as a low door threshold, to make it easier to enter and exit your vehicle, or a thicker steering wheel that requires less hand and wrist strength to use;

  • And enhance the “fit” between you and your vehicle by adjusting mirrors to minimize blind spots and adjusting your seat so you can reach and fully depress foot pedals without sitting too close to your vehicle’s airbag.

How to Manage Slower Reaction Times

Driving is a complex, fast-paced activity. For senior drivers, reaction time depends on your ability to process information in the driving environment, to use that information to choose an action, and to react based on your decision. Completing these three steps quickly requires a sharp mind and a fit and flexible body.

While the single most effective way to improve driver reaction time is to exercise your mind and body, there are ways to compensate for slower reaction times and eliminate driving distractions.

  • Increase your following distance. Senior drivers should allow a greater distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you, so you’ll have more time to slow down or stop.

  • Minimize left turns. Senior drivers age 65 and older are over-represented in crashes involving left-hand turns. If possible, make three right turns to avoid making a left. Or try to use intersections with designated left-hand turn lanes. These are much safer for drivers of all ages.

  • Eliminate distractions inside the vehicle. Adjusting radio volume, using a cell phone, and interacting with passengers dangerously divert any driver’s attention. Keep the environment inside your vehicle as calm as possible and remove anything that makes it more difficult for you to focus.

  • Plan your route. Before you get behind the wheel, map out where you are going and start your GPS (if using). Doing so will help you avoid making any last-minute decisions about which way to turn or how to reach your destination.

  • Try to steer clear of busy highways and congested traffic. High-speed driving can be stressful, so don’t hesitate to use local roads instead of highways. Also try to avoid rush hour traffic or highly congested areas. More vehicles on the road translate to a greater likelihood of a collision.

  • Review your medications. All drivers should remember that prescription and over-the-counter medications can slow reflexes, blur vision, and cause drowsiness or dizziness. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the medications you are taking and what you can do to prevent any dangerous side effects from cropping up behind the wheel.

  • Stay awake and alert. Drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk and distracted driving. Be sure to get enough sleep before a long trip and take frequent breaks along the way. Pull over as soon as possible if you start to feel tired or begin to nod off.