Getting Older and Driving
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Getting Older and Driving

As an adult, having a car and being able to drive from point A to point B seems to be a necessity. Once we have a car of our own, it’s hard to imagine not being able to go wherever we want to go when we want to go there. People love being able to drive not just because it’s a passion or a way to pass the time but because it’s a lifeline. We are busy creatures who live our lives in the outside world: we drive to work, to school, to the grocery store, to restaurants and other forms of entertainment. Driving keeps us connected to the outside world and gives us a purpose. So what happens when we’re not able to do so anymore or when our ability to drive becomes impaired? Studies have shown that giving up the option to drive increases a person’s mortality and the likelihood of depression and moving into an assisted living facility. Because of this, it’s not surprising that many people are reluctant to stop driving.

Most of us don’t even think about what we’re doing when we get behind the wheel of a car. After a while driving becomes effortless when in reality it’s a complex task that requires healthy cognition and a decent amount of flexibility. While younger people may not think about the the hoops our brains and bodies are jumping through to enable us to watch the road, manage the wheel, the gas pedal, and the brake all while we’re singing along with the radio and enjoying a cup of coffee, there are a long list of conditions that impair our ability to do all of those things at the same time as we age. Even those of us in our later twenties and thirties find ourselves turning down the radio so we can concentrate on reading street signs and house numbers while we drive. As the ageing process continues, there is a long list of medical conditions that can impair the cognition and flexibility needed for safe driving. It’s not just major conditions such as Alzheimers or dementia that are possible risk factors, there are more common conditions such as chronic pain, failing vision, osteoarthritis and the drugs used to treat those conditions that can interfere with safe driving.

All of the challenges and medical conditions that seem to come along with aging may make it seem as though seniors are a danger to the road, but that’s not exactly the case. It’s true that there are a plethora of risk factors that come along with aging, but statistics have shown that younger, newer drivers (aged 16-19) are involved in more crashes per mile than drivers in their 70s and 80s. The older population don’t get the credit they deserve for their safe drivers. Younger people are more likely to multitask and speed, while older people are more likely to wear their seatbelts and follow the speed limit. Seniors aren’t as likely to drive at night or after they’ve been drinking either. So while they may have more biological impairments, seniors are actually found to be safer drivers when it comes to following the rules of the road.

While there are risk factors in every age group there are more precautions taken when it comes to seniors renewing their licenses and staying on the road. Some states require vision screenings for drivers over 40 or road tests for anyone 75 or older. Some states require that a physician sign off on a license renewal if the driver is at least 70 years old. Many of the rules and regulations associated with license renewal may seem excessive, but two of them actually make sense: In-person renewals, and additional vision tests in states that don’t require in-person renewals. These extra steps work because they provide for an opportunity to spot functional deficits and encourage further screening.

In-person renewals and vision testing appear to be the best precautions to be taken for license renewals thus far, but research has also shown that it’s difficult to design a course of action to help determine when a person has aged past driving. Many people experience diminished vision, cognition, and motor skills as they age, but these deficits also present themselves at different rates and levels of severity. Some seniors, for example are biking and hiking well into their seventies while others find it difficult to climb a flight of stairs.    

It’s difficult to create an accurate course of action to help determine when it’s no longer safe for people to be driving since everyone ages differently. In America, over 75% of adults have a driver’s license, 40 million of which are 65 and older and 3.5 million of those seniors are over the age of 85. It’s inevitable that cognitive and physical impairments will eventually make it difficult or virtually impossible to continue driving and that might lead people to consider putting their keys away for good. But what happens then? If we can’t drive, how else do we get around? Many people live in areas with very few (if any) alternative forms of transportation, and the ones that are available may be difficult for the older population to navigate on their own. One of the most important things one can do is to be aware of their options. There are exercises, such as aerobics, that can slow down cognitive decline and help maintain and strengthen flexibility. It can also help, in the event that driving is no longer an option, to know what your options are in terms of alternate transportation. There’s the option of taking the bus, using Uber or Lyft, creating a schedule with friends or family, or even hiring a caregiver to come by a couple of days out of the week to keep you company while you go into town.

It’s true that driving is an important part of our lives that we often take for granted. Most people don’t realize how convenient it is to have a car as well as the ability to drive it. Having your license taken away or having the strength to admit that it might be time to give up the activity is difficult, but it’s good to know that there are things you can do to drive longer as well as an array of alternatives if or when the time comes to hang up your keys.