More older drivers are on the roads today than ever before– there are 49.6 million drivers in the United States age 65 and older as of 2021, according to the most recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That was a 38% increase from 2012, compared to just an 10% bump in the total number of licensed drivers.
Along with that growth has come a sharp increase in traffic deaths, with the number of fatalities in senior driver crashes nationwide in 2021 reaching its highest point in more than 20 years. There were 8,209 fatalities involving drivers ages 65 and older in 2021, the most recent year for which federal data is available.
“Older drivers aren’t necessarily worse drivers than their younger counterparts,” said Mark Schieldrop, Senior Spokesperson for AAA Northeast. “In fact, AAA research shows that seniors are less likely to engage in risky behaviors behind the wheel. But they are at greater risk of being killed or seriously injured if a crash occurs.”
Remaining an active driver can provide older adults with a much-valued level of independence. However, the physical and cognitive changes that come with aging, coupled with medical conditions and increased medication use can put older drivers at a greater risk behind the wheel. To mark Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, which is Dec. 4-8, AAA Northeast is encouraging seniors and their families to have discussions about how to ensure safe mobility for years to come.
Here are some of the biggest challenges older drivers face and how to overcome them.
Just about everyone’s eyesight gets worse as they age thanks to a condition called presbyopia. Over time, the lenses in your eyes stiffen, making it more difficult to focus on nearby objects. Other diseases, such as glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration, can exacerbate the problem.
On the road, vision problems can make it difficult to see pedestrians, cars, signs and hazards, especially at night or in low-light conditions. A study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that one-third of crashes involving older drivers were the result of inadequate surveillance, mostly looking but not seeing another vehicle or traffic control.
Hearing loss is another common problem for older adults, and though we might not think of hearing as a critical sense for driving – it is. Recognizing horns and sirens can help you steer clear of danger and avoid a crash.
Sore Muscles and Joints
As you age, your muscles may become weaker and your joints stiffer. Arthritis, or joint inflammation, is particularly common in older adults. It can be painful to move afflicted parts of your body, making it difficult to pull off even the most basic physical movements needed to drive a car safely, such as turning the steering wheel, applying pressure to the brake or accelerator and turning your head to see your surroundings.
Research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that nearly 50% of older drivers were using seven or more medications. Many medications come with potentially impairing side effects, such as blurred vision, confusion, fatigue or incoordination. Symptoms like these can increase the likelihood of a crash by up to 300%
Slow Reaction Time
Reflexes tend to slow down as you age, making it difficult to react to sudden changes on the roadway in a timely manner. This can put you at a greater risk for a crash.
Studies have shown that older drivers have more trouble with specific aspects of driving. These include merging, passing through intersections and judging the space between vehicles and the speed of other cars.
How Older Drivers Can Remain Safe Drivers
- Talk to your doctor. Have an honest conversation with your doctor regarding your health and whether or not it’s safe for you to drive. You may also want to devise an exercise program under their guidance to increase your strength and flexibility.
- Ask about side effects. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, many drivers prescribed potentially impairing medications are never warned by their health care provider about how the medicine could impact their driving ability.
- Get your eyesight checked regularly. Your vision changes as you age, so make sure to visit your eye doctor at least once a year. Never drive without wearing your prescribed glasses or contacts.
- Be smart about when you drive. If possible, avoid driving at dawn, dusk or nighttime. The limited light and/or sun glare during these times of day make it more difficult to see. You also may want to make things easier for yourself by avoiding the road during rush hour and other times of high traffic.
- Take an adult driving lesson. Learning how to drive is not just for teenagers. Whether you’re a brand-new driver or just need a refresher, it’s never too late to improve your skills behind the wheel. As always, AAA is here to help. Learn about our Adult Driver Training program and sign up today!
- Adapt your vehicle. Hand controls can allow you to operate the brake and accelerator with handles, which you may find easier than using your feet. Seat boosters can give you a better line of vision from behind the wheel. Learn about AAA’s CarFit assessments.
Learn more about AAA’s senior driving resources, including information on how older drivers can extend their driving careers and prepare for “driving retirement.”
Are you an older driver? What are some challenges you’ve encountered behind the wheel? Let us know in the comments below.