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Safe Driving and Risks in the Elderly


Safe Driving and Risks in the ElderlyThe senior years should not restrict an able bodied person from undertaking activities such as driving a motor vehicle. Safe driving means being able to adequately utilize the senses, limbs and mental faculties, apart from the other factors like driving a roadworthy vehicle, not driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and maintaining the speed limit. The elderly are sometimes at a disadvantage as the host of chronic diseases that are seen with advancing age coupled with the age-related changes in the body can undermine the safe operation of a motor vehicle. However, with a clean bill of health there is no reason why a senior cannot drive daily or even for long distances.

Risks Associated With Seniors Driving

The two main senses needs for driving are the sense of sight and to a lesser degree the sense of hearing. Both these senses experience age-related degeneration which is further worsened by certain chronic diseases. Similarly the mental faculties may be compromised to some extent with and particularly with neurodegenerative conditions that are more common in the elderly.

Sight and Hearing

The sense of sight which is crucial for safe driving may be compromised for several reasons including :

  • Age-related refractive error – presbyopia
  • Cataracts
  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Glaucoma

Although an elderly person may feel that their vision is adequate to operate a vehicle, any loss of vision comprises this ability. An opthamologist (eye specialist) and optician can diagnose the type of vision problem and correct it in most cases. Therefore regular eye examinations and visual assessment is essential for seniors who wish to continue driving.

Hearing may not be as crucial for safe driving as sight. However, any defect in hearing may mean that a person can miss another vehicle honking its horn as a warning signal or the sirens of emergency vehicles. Therefore the ability to hear sufficiently with or without assistive devices like a hearing aid needs to be assessed by an otorhinolaryngologist (ear-nose-throat doctor) and audiologist.

Mental Abilities

The mental faculties are essential for safe driving as is the case with vision. This means that a person must be able to make quick and logical decisions to avoid any mishaps on the road. It is also important for proper assessment of distances and coordination of the muscle activities necessary to operate a vehicle. Apart from age-related degeneration in some mental faculties, certain conditions can also compromise these abilities. This mainly includes :

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Senile dementia

General Health

Apart from the senses and mental faculties, a person’s general health status can also impact on safe driving. The senior years are associated with more chronic diseases. Some of these can have fatal consequences. A person who is experiencing occasional episodes of symptoms of a stroke (transient ischemic attack) or heart attack (angina pectoris) may be at risk of these conditions striking any time. It can have fatal consequences and should it occur while a person is driving, it may also put other road users at risk.

Muscles and Reflexes

Operating a motor vehicle requires coordination, muscle strength to some degree and quick responses to avert dangers on the road. Age-related changes in the motor functions or diseases that compromise coordination, muscle activity, strength and reflexes can be dangerous for a senior who wishes to drive.


Motor vehicles should not operated while under the influence of alcohol, narcotic street drugs or certain prescription medication like opioid painkillers or sedatives. However, various other medication may also have side effects such as drowsiness or dizziness, blurred vision and fatigue which can affect a person’s ability to drive safely.

Driving Safely in the Senior Years

As mentioned, it is imperative that senior drivers get a clean bill of health from a medical professional and undergo regular assessments to verify that they are safe drivers. Should there be problems starting up that may affect one’s driving ability, it is important to admit that these disabilities are present and seek medical help for it. Elderly sitters can offer a degree of safety by either driving an older person around or monitoring a senior driver who is behind the wheel. Age should not limit one’s independence in tasks such as driving but a senior has to be prudent in admitting when he/she is unable to safely operate a vehicle and seek medical treatment where possible.

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