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Keep Driving Safely as You Age

How to maintain your skills behind the wheel for as long as possible

Older couple standing next to car door

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When it comes to staying safe on the road, this is a good time to be an older driver.

The number of people 70 and older killed in crashes has decreased by 18 percent in the last two decades to 4,792 deaths in 2016, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). And today’s older drivers are involved in fewer crashes per mile traveled than those in prior generations. 

These positive trends come as the number of drivers who are 70 and older is increasing. One reason for fewer fatalities: Vehicles are safer than ever. “Side airbags have been standard on the majority of new vehicles since the 2008 model year, and we are seeing the benefits of improved side-impact protection in the crash data, especially for older drivers,” says Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice president for research. “Today’s older drivers are walking away from crashes that might have killed their grandparents.”

Simply getting older shouldn’t affect your safety and fitness to drive. Many older drivers enjoy better health than drivers who were the same age decades ago, so they can function more safely today, and for a longer time.

Read the warning signs

Still, a time may come when you’ll need to consider giving up the keys. Many chronic health conditions can compromise driving skills, from the obvious culprits like cataracts, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and sleep apnea, to the less-obvious ones (diabetes, for example, if your blood sugar levels suddenly dip).

So how do you know if it’s time?

Here are five questions to ask yourself — or a loved one you are concerned about — to assess whether it’s OK to stay behind the wheel.

1. Do you frequently have difficulty reading street signs and seeing street markings?

2. Does driving leave you feeling anxious and stressed?

3. Have friends or family members expressed concern regarding your driving, or said they don’t feel safe with you behind the wheel?

4. Do you have difficulty with certain physical requirements of driving? For example, do you have trouble looking over your shoulder when changing lanes?

5. Are you currently taking medication that causes drowsiness or otherwise impedes your ability to drive?

If you answered yes to even one of these questions, and you want to keep driving, consider these steps.

“Today’s older drivers are walking away from crashes that might have killed their grandparents.”

—Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice president for research

If you answered yes to even one of these questions, and you want to keep driving, consider these steps.

  • Rethink your meds. Many medications can make you drowsy or affect your concentration. Your doctor may be able to suggest a drug without those side effects. Your doctor may also give you certain driving restrictions — such as avoiding night driving or curvy country roads — that can keep you out of potentially dangerous situations. Doctors are getting some training on this topic. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Geriatrics Society teamed up to publish the Clinician’s Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers. The guide says that many older drivers successfully self-regulate their driving after it becomes clear that certain restrictions are warranted.
  • Get a consultant. They’re called driver rehabilitation specialists, and they help if you’re becoming anxious or uncertain about your ability to safely pilot a vehicle. A specialist will assess your abilities and offer advice to help you drive more safely. For example, he or she may suggest vehicle modifications that could help make your time behind the wheel less physically taxing. Many specialists offer discounts to seniors. And your health insurance may cover part or all of the evaluation.
  • Take a course. Today’s driving environment is vastly different from when you first got licensed. New laws (such as those designed to prevent distracted driving) and new technologies are part of the equation. A course geared toward older drivers can help you navigate this ever-changing landscape. AARP offers several of these courses all across the nation (aarp.org/drive). Participating in a senior driving course could qualify you for a car insurance discount.
  • Upgrade your car. The IIHS has identified several technology upgrades that reduce crashes for older drivers: rearview cameras that can help drivers see while backing up; automatic emergency braking systems; collision warning systems; and blind spot and lane-departure warning systems that help drivers avoid crashes while changing lanes. 

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