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Dealing With Health Issues That Affect Older Drivers

Use these tactics to overcome age-related roadblocks

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Many of us remain up-to-date on the rules of the road and new car technologies, but sometimes we don't realize we need to adapt to our changing bodies, too. Whether its achy joints, poor hearing or slow reaction times, physical and mental health changes can become obstacles to safe driving.

"We want all the drivers, whether they're old or young, to be safe on the road,” says Dana Plude, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging's (NIA) Division of Behavioral and Social Research, which offers a safety guide for older drivers.

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Addressing these age-related health issues can help you stay safe on the road.

Reflexes and reaction times

Age can bring slower reflexes (or slower involuntary reaction times). Voluntary reaction times may also become impaired, since attention spans can get shorter, making it harder to multitask. How to cope:

  • Leave more space between your vehicle and the car in front of you.
  • Brake early when you need to stop.
  • Avoid heavy traffic areas or rush hour when possible.
  • On a freeway or highway, drive on the right-hand lane where traffic is slower and you will have more time to make a driving decision.

A huge leap in safety has arrived with automatic braking systems, now in most new cars, that detect when a car nears an object and brake before a driver even presses the pedal.

Medications and awareness

Drivers on certain medications can become drowsy or light-headed.

  • Read drug labels carefully and look for any potential side effects that might affect your driving (drowsiness, blurred vision, slowed movement, fainting, inability to focus, nausea, excitability).
  • Make a list of all your medicines and ask your doctor how they may affect your driving.
  • Don't drive if you feel dizzy or light-headed.
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Joints and muscles

Stiffness and muscle weakness, due to arthritis or other issues, can make it more difficult to turn your head, move the steering wheel, or even brake the car.

  • If possible, drive a car with an automatic transmission, large mirrors to help visibility, and power steering and brakes.
  • Consider getting hand controls for the gas or brake pedals if you have leg problems.
  • See a doctor if pain or stiffness gets in the way of driving.
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Seeing and hearing

When age brings weakened eyesight, it may become harder for drivers to see people or signs, or even recognize familiar locations. These problems can be exacerbated at night. Additionally, hearing loss can make it challenging to perceive sirens, horns or your car's warning sounds.

  • Do errands in your car during the day to cut back or eliminate driving at night.
  • Make sure your eye-correction prescriptions are up-to-date and always wear your glasses or contacts when you drive.
  • Try to keep the inside of your car as quiet as possible to eliminate distractions.

Go the extra mile

If you don't have an immediate driving obstacle, there are other steps you can make to improve your safety on the road.

  • Have your driving skills checked by a driving specialist, occupational therapist or trained professional.
  • Take a defensive driving course. These are offered by some car insurance companies (and may lower your bill), AAA, and AARP.
  • When in doubt, don't go out. Bad weather can make it hard for anyone to drive.
  • Choose routes that avoid highways or roads difficult to manage.
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