I know, I know, it’s a very touchy subject. For those of us that went through this with our parents, we know how extremely hard it can be to even talk about it. Driving is the main component of personal independence, both symbolically and in reality. The ability to go where and when we like, without relying on anyone else’s schedule or availability – none of us wants to give that up.
It’s natural to think of ourselves as capable and competent, able to make good decisions even under pressure, remembering directions, obeying the driving laws, and staying safe. But the truth is that as we age, our reactions slow down and our memories are more subject to lapses. Our vision and hearing are not as good as they used to be.
Driving down a familiar street for the first time at night, for instance, can throw off our sense of orientation. Being in a traffic jam with lots of angry honking and aggressive driving all around us can make us nervous and unsure. Even the ubiquitous clichés of senior drivers leaving their blinkers on forever or driving too slowly in the wrong lane can make us seem unpredictable and unreliable to other drivers.
And then there are the stories that pop up every few months about the older driver who plows into a group of people because he or she stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake! I am especially sensitive to this one because several years ago, as a pedestrian, I and 26 other people were hit by such a driver. I ended up with a shattered knee that eventually had to be replaced, but some of the injuries of others were much worse.
No matter our age, it is the responsibility of each of us to make sure our driving is as safe as possible, both for ourselves and others. We need to be really honest with ourselves and always appreciate the fact that driving safely is not something we can just take for granted.
Ten steps to increase your driving safety
None of these steps is particularly difficult. But all of them will increase the chances that we will make it back and forth from home safely.
#1 – Drive with maximum focus and eliminate distractions. No texting, obviously, but also, no eating, no dealing with misbehaving grandchildren in the back seat, no loud discussions on hot political topics (even if you’re just talking back to the radio), no dialing your phone, no picking up something that dropped on the floor, and all the rest.
#2 – Know your car intimately. Every car has its quirks and it’s up to you to either fix them or know how to compensate for them. Know whether your headlights automatically turn on in the rain. Know where the rear window defogger button is without having to hunt for it. Know how to adjust your seat and the headrest so they fit your driving perfectly. Use a seat cushion if you need to.
#3 – Learn how to use a GPS. Ok, they are occasionally wrong, but when going to an unfamiliar place, a GPS giving you verbal directions is far safer than reading a map or directions written on a piece of paper.
#4 – Choose when to drive so that you are at your most comfortable and alert. Being retired gives you more choices in this regard. Most seniors give up driving at night before they give up their car keys completely, a wise move. Don’t drive in bad weather if that makes you skittish. Don’t drive when you’re tired or not feeling well.
#5 – Check your vision (because your state Department of Motor Vehicles will not do a good job in this regard) and stop putting off cataract surgery. Keep a spare pair of glasses in the car.
#6 – Check your hearing too.
#7 – Always consider the side effects of your medications. Don’t ever drive immediately after starting a new med; give yourself time to know how it affects you.
#8 – If you must take a long driving trip, share the driving if at all possible, take frequent breaks, and don’t drive more than eight hours a day. It usually doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there; it’s much more important that you make it there safely.
# 9 – Take a driving course designed especially for seniors. AAA offers these, as do other organizations.
#10 – And I hope it goes without saying that if you ever, ever have even a small moment when you’re confused about which is the brake pedal and which is the gas pedal, give up driving right then and there!
Please feel free to add to this list – the more suggestions, the better.
I'm Linda Fleit. My husband and I were lucky enough to retire when we were 61, about nine years ago. We love being retired and want to share all that we've learned over the years about this wonderful stage of life.