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Safe Driving in Old Age

Older drivers are able to cope with a wide variety of driving situations thanks to their years of driving experience. Tough, at the same time certain skills important for safe driving decrease over time [1].

Vision

Vision deteriorates with increasing age. Not only does visual acuity decrease, but the field of vision also narrows. This increases the risk of overlooking important information in traffic. In addition, mesopic vision is reduced and sensitivity to glare increases. This particularly impacts night-time driving [2]. A common aging phenomenon that affects almost everyone over 70 years is cataracts. For those affected, vision usually appears blurry or grey. The first signs of vision deterioration can be observed already from the age of 40 [8].


Hearing

Hearing ability decreases with age as well. According to the WHO, around one third of all people aged 65+ suffer from hearing impairments [3]. These impairments may initially occur at high frequencies or regarding the perception of background noise. If hearing problems occur, driving may be affected as well. In order to drive safely, the driver must be able to quickly recognize where a sound is coming from (e.g. perception of approaching vehicles).


Mobility

Safe driving of a vehicle can also be affected by limited mobility and flexibility. For example, immobility in the cervical spine can make it more difficult or even impossible to look over the shoulder. As a result, other road users can be overlooked more easily when changing lanes. Stiff joints can also lead to slower reactions, for example when braking or swerving. [8] Studies also show that decreasing strength in the hands and legs can have a negative effect on driving manoeuvres (e.g. steering or operating pedals) [4].


Attention

When driving a vehicle, it is important to pay attention to different things simultaneously, such as other road users, road conditions or traffic signs (divided attention). At the same time, unimportant details must be tuned out, and drivers must react to essential elements of the traffic situation (selective attention).

With age, these abilities gradually decline, and it becomes more difficult to filter out relevant information from unimportant ones [5]. Therefore, complex traffic situations are often perceived as unpleasant by older people.

Additional distractions such as talking on the phone or operating the radio provoke that the traffic environment is no longer perceived at all. In addition, distracted persons over the age of 65 have three times the reaction time of younger distracted persons [8].


Reaction time

A quick reaction is essential in order to drive safely. Several skills are necessary for this: At first, a hazard must be seen or heard. In the next stage the situation has to be recognized as dangerous and requiring a response. Subsequently, a decision is needed on how to act. Lastly, the action itself needs to be performed. A decrease in any of these skills can result in a much slower overall response time to critical traffic situations [6].

Tips There are many things you can do to continue driving safely in higher age and to compensate for age-related impairments. This ranges from adjusting one's driving style to using driver assistance systems. Some suggestions are listed below.

  • Have regular check-ups with your ophthalmologist and ENT specialist to counteract any deterioration in vision or hearing in good time.

  • Note that a visual aid cannot compensate for all changes in vision. If this is the case, you should adjust your driving behaviour accordingly [8].

  • Adjust the lighting of your dashboard according to your needs.

  • If your hearing is impaired, try to keep the inside of your car as quiet as possible while driving (e.g., do not turn on the radio) [7].

  • Regular strength and flexibility exercises can help to improve your reflexes and range of motion, as well as relieve pain and stiffness. This also has positive effects on the ability to look back over your shoulder or operating the pedals and steering.

  • Keep sufficient distance to the vehicle in front of you.

  • Avoid distractions while driving, such as talking on the phone or operating navigation systems.

  • If possible, avoid driving conditions that make you feel uncomfortable. For example, do not drive at night, in bad weather, or in heavy traffic if these situations cause problems [1].

  • Switching to a car with automatic transmission at an early stage can simplify operating the vehicle [7].

  • In addition, power steering or power brakes can partially compensate for loss of strength in the hands or legs. [4]

  • Driving assistance systems such as cruise control or lane departure warning systems can also enable stress-free driving [7].

  • Attending a defensive driving course is a good way to refresh your reaction and concentration skills while driving.

  • Ask your doctor if health problems or medications might make it unsafe for you to drive.

[1] Deutscher Verkehrssicherheitsrat e. V. (DVR), (2019). Fit und AUTOmobil - Tipps, Hinweise und interessante Informationen rund um das Thema „Älter werden und AUTOmobil bleiben“. [2] For more information see the blog „Driving in the dark“

[3] https://www.who.int/pbd/deafness/news/GE_65years.pdf

[4] Karthaus, M., Willemssen, R., Joiko, S., Falkenstein, M. (2015). Kompensationsstrategien von älteren Verkehrsteilnehmern nach einer VZR-Auffälligkeit. Bericht zum Forschungsprojekt FE 82.364/2009. Bremen, Fachverlag NW.

[5] Polders, E., Brijs, T., Vlahogianni, E., Papadimitriou, E., Yannis, G., Durso, C., Diamandouros, K. (2015). ElderSafe. Risks and countermeasures for road traffic of elderly in Europe. Final report. [6] AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, Drivers 65 Plus: Check Your Performance. A Self-Rating Tool with Facts and Suggestions for Safe Driving.

[7] https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/older-drivers

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