Driving Safety for Older Adults

By Anne Riddering, OTR/L, CLVT, COMS

Driving is an extremely complex everyday task. There are visual, cognitive (thinking, judgment, reasoning, remembering), and physical demands of driving that require the older adult driver to attend to a rapidly changing environment outside of the car. As the car moves through the environment, the driver must react quickly, often to unexpected events, such as pedestrians crossing in the middle of the road, the unexpected stop or turn of another vehicle, or an animal running into the street.

Contrast Sensitivity and Driving

Snow creates low contrast on this road

Contrast sensitivity decreases as we age, and for adults with an eye disease such as macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy, it is further limited.

Contrast sensitivity refers to the ability to detect differences between light and dark areas; therefore, increasing the contrast between an object and its background will generally make an object more visible. Usually, the most substantial contrast is black-on-white or white-on-black. Seeing curbs and faded road surface markings are examples of low-contrast driving activities. Rain, snow, and fog (see photo at left) can also create a low-contrast driving environment.

Glare Sensitivity and Driving

Glare from sunlight on the sidewalk and roadway

Glare sensitivity (see photo at left) is another problem for many older adult drivers during both day and night. By keeping your windshield, other car windows, and eyeglasses clean, you can help prevent glare. Smudges, streaks, and dirt will often refract the light at odd angles, creating more glare.

When the light from oncoming cars shines directly in your eyes, you should look slightly down and to the right of the road. You can see the road using your peripheral vision, which is less glare-sensitive.

Sunglasses may also help to reduce glare, especially those with a yellow or amber tint, which tends to increase contrast without darkening the environment. A yellow-tinted lens may help on cloudy, rainy, or snowy days or at night. Only a yellow-tinted lens should be used for night driving.

Scanning and Driving Safety

Individuals with minimal vision problems who continue to drive should learn to scan in an organized manner. You can practice scanning when you are a passenger in the car. Begin at the left side of the road. Quickly scan horizontally across the road, looking for oncoming traffic, traffic lights, and pedestrians on sidewalks or corners. You can learn more about efficient horizontal scanning techniques at Scanning Efficiently for Activities of Daily Living.

Also, pay close attention to the “Walk/Don’t Walk” signals. If the “Walk/Don’t Walk” signal is blinking, indicating don’t walk, be prepared to stop, as the light could change soon.

Suggestions for Road and Driving Safety

To stay safe on the road, older adults can implement the following suggestions:

  • Know the environments and situations that make you uncomfortable. Certain types of weather or busy roads may be distressing for you. Avoid these situations or environments, if possible.
  • Stay in the right-hand lane as much as possible. Use familiar routes and stay close to home.
  • Drive in the daytime if you are bothered by night glare. Avoid dusk hours, which create low-contrast driving situations.
  • Avoid heavy traffic times, such as rush hour or around school dismissal time. Mid-morning or mid-afternoon may be when there is not as much traffic on the road.
  • Identify and eliminate distractions. Turn off the radio. Don’t use your cell phone. Don’t eat, drink, or smoke in the car. Limit the number of passengers in your car.
  • Plan your routes ahead of time. Think about the traffic on the roads you will drive. Consider where and in what direction you will turn. Have an alternative route in case of construction or when an accident closes lanes or the road.
  • Maintain an appropriate speed and drive no slower than five miles per hour below the posted speed.
  • Participate in a regular exercise program to maintain or increase the mobility of your neck and trunk mobility, coordination, and overall endurance.
  • Explore local alternatives to driving. Senior and community centers may offer a door-to-door transportation service. Taxi services may offer discounts to older adults. Churches or neighborhood groups may organize volunteer drivers for older adults. These alternatives may come in handy if you need to get to an appointment scheduled at rush hour or during winter weather.

Resources for Safe Driving and Driving Alternatives

  • The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators has published the Driver Fitness Medical Guidelines, which is available as a free download. It includes a discussion on vision and visual acuity.
  • The US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Older Drivers Education website provides information on the Older Driver Program, advice for family and friends concerned about an older driver, and adapting motor vehicles for older drivers.
  • You can also find driving refresher courses offered by local senior centers, hospitals, or your local American Automobile Association (AAA) office.
  • Occupational therapists and certified driving rehabilitation specialists may also be able to assess your skills and train you to be a better driver.