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Gradually Putting the Brakes on Driving

How and why some aging motorists begin to limit their time behind the wheel

older female driver

SelectStock / Alamy Photos

En español | At age 72, tour guide Adeodata Czink regularly finds herself driving her 2018 Toyota Corolla, showing clients around Toronto and the Niagara Falls area. And she has no plans to change her routine anytime soon based on her age. “I would be very, very upset if some youngster comes up to me and says that he has the right to take away my keys just because I have reached a certain age,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t begun to modify her schedule. She tries to avoid driving at night, starting her tours at 7:30 a.m. so that she can finish her workday before it gets dark, since she finds navigating at night more challenging now. Czink also watches the weather closely: “I find that when it rains and starts to get dark, it is quite uncomfortable. I do my best to avoid it.”

Indeed, car-safety and geriatric experts say that while it may not be necessary to give up your keys because of your age, you should recognize that your abilities change with the passing years and scale back on driving accordingly.

Above all, stay alert to warning signs: If you’re starting to drive over curbs, miss signs, lose your way on familiar routes, get confused at highway exits or have accidents, you should have your vision checked and speak frankly with your doctor.

Like Czink, many older people self-regulate by slowly cutting back on their driving, says Sharona Hoffman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University and author of Aging With a Plan: How a Little Thought Today Can Vastly Improve Your Tomorrow. As drivers age, they often begin to avoid interstates, sticking to slower-paced surface streets. “Merging on to a highway can be very difficult,” Hoffman notes. “It’s scarier because everyone’s going faster.”

Hoffman suggests that older folks periodically get an independent review of their performance, arranging to have a child or relative join them on an outing and give feedback. If that’s uncomfortable, she recommends having an occupational therapist offer an assessment. Sometimes the problem can be medication, such as interactions between different drugs, which may dull reaction time and perception.

But changes also occur because, like a car, the human body simply begins to wear down after many years of use. The main issues include:

Declining vision

One of the most notable areas of concern is the eyes. Experts say vision shifts several times as we age from our mid-40s to our 70s. About 10 years after needing reading glasses, men and women may begin to have trouble detecting moving objects, seeing well in the dark and driving when there's glare. 

sun glare on a car windshield

Douglas Sacha / Alamy Photos

Then, at around age 70, people have difficulty seeing fine details, says Lauren Fix, a race car driver and automobile educator, who writes on her site, LaurenFix.com.

Pupils take longer to adjust to darkness or bright light, Fix explains. So an 80-year-old needs three times more light to see as well as a 20-year-old.

Peripheral vision decreases, as well, particularly for those with bifocals or trifocals. A quick glance right or left is no longer sufficient; instead older people must move their head to see what is next to them, which can be difficult for those with arthritis or mobility issues.

Another issue: Thickening of the eye’s lenses can limit depth perception, which “is everything when driving,” says Laura Smothers-Chu, a health care professional and founder of Befriended Heart, an organization that supports women dealing with a parent’s dementia. “Whether it's stopping in time for a traffic light or braking for a child running across the road, things are moving closer and farther from their cars all the time.”

Slowing Reflexes

Another age-related change is slower reaction time, which increases the danger from unexpected events, such as a car pulling into traffic in front of your car. It may take longer to hit the brakes or steer away to avoid an accident.

And as mental-processing speeds slow down, it's harder to multitask and keep track of all the factors at play when behind the wheel.

Smothers-Chu says drivers can work to mitigate these shifts in ability, most importantly by planning ahead to keep distractions to a minimum. On new routes, she suggests reviewing a physical map before hitting the road, instead of relying solely on a GPS, which requires drivers to process a lot of information quickly.

Other tips: Don’t eat and drive, and if you’re going to text or make a phone call, pull over first (advice that's good for drivers of any age).

And remember that these days, cutting back on driving doesn’t have to mean curtailing your independence. Thanks to ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, it’s easier than ever to gradually step back, letting someone else take the wheel after dark or in unfamiliar environments. Even people who don’t use smartphones can take advantage of the services, thanks to websites like GoGoGrandparent, which let passengers arrange for rides with a phone call.

And in the future, as we enter an era of self-piloted cars, aging out of driving may be even less of a concern, says Hoffman, the law professor. “There’s hope that [the new technology] will allow people to drive much longer.”

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