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Impacts of Aging on Driving

As we age, driving safely can become more difficult. Our ability to react quickly, remember, and make judgments in traffic situations may decrease. For many of us, our eyesight worsens and our strength and flexibility decrease. It can also take us longer to react to unexpected situations.

While age-related changes happen to all of us, they don’t affect all drivers at the same rate or in the same way. What happens – declines in vision, cognition including memory and reaction time, and motor function including physical strength and flexibility – to what degree and how fast varies from person to person.

Understanding the impacts explained below is the first step in adjusting to them to continue driving safely. 

As we age, many of us need more light to see things along the roadway.  We often must be closer to read signs and see what’s happening with traffic.  Our eyes need more time to recover from the glare of headlights at night. Once you turn 50, it’s a good idea to have your eyes checked every year or two to make sure your vision continues to meet state standards for safe driving.

If you have glasses or contacts for distance vision: 
  • Always wear them when you drive, even for short trips. If your driver’s license says you must wear corrective lenses and you don’t, you could get a ticket.
  • Try to keep an extra pair of glasses in your vehicle. Then, if your regular glasses get broken or lost, you can drive safely. This will also help if you don’t wear glasses all the time and you forget to bring them.
  • Don't wear dark glasses or tinted contact lenses at night, even to help with glare. They block too much of the light you need to see.

Motor Function – what your body does and how in response to information about and from your environment – is also affected by aging, including:
  • Muscle strength;
  • Endurance;
  • Flexibility; and
  • Range of motion. 
These are all needed for safe driving. A loss of any of these skills makes it harder to control the vehicle. Aging can cause muscles to weaken and stiffen making even simple movements more difficult to both do and repeat.

Cognition is defined as “mental processes” and includes:
  • Perception – awareness of the elements of the world around us;
  • Attention – the ability to focus on and apply the mind to something;
  • Learning – the ability to absorb and apply new information;
  • Memory – the ability to retain and recall experiences and information;
  • Thought – the ability to use your mind to consider something;
  • Visual processing – the brain's ability to use and interpret visual information from the world around us;
  • Reading; and
  • Problem solving - the process or act of identifying a problem and finding a solution to it.
Driving requires many of these skills. You must remember:
  • How to operate your vehicle which requires: Attention, Memory, Visual Processing.
  • What the signs and signals mean which requires: Attention, Memory, Visual Processing, Thought.
  • Know your destination and how to get there, all while processing other information which requires: Perception, Attention, Memory, Thoughts, Visual Processing, Reading and sometimes problem-solving.