Seniors and Driving: Risks, Tips, and Stereotypes

An estimated 40+ million American seniors have a driver’s license. They have a wealth of experience on the roads and rely on their cars to fulfill their basic needs, including grocery shopping and medication pick-ups.

Despite this, there are a lot of concerns about the growing number of seniors on American roads, and it’s gotten to the point where loved ones are even threatening to stop their parents and grandparents from driving.

The question is, are these concerns valid and, if so, is there anything a senior driver can do to reduce their risk and stay safe?

The Truth about Senior Drivers

Seniors are the recipients of endless jokes and stereotypes regarding their driving abilities. If pop culture is to be believed, seniors are lethal weapons when they get behind the steering wheel. How much of this stereotype is true, though, and are seniors really more accident-prone than their younger counterparts?

Yes and no. It’s complicated, and it really all depends on what statistics you focus on.

You will almost certainly pay more for your insurance as you hit 65, but this isn’t necessarily because you’re more likely to be involved in an accident.

For instance, seniors are 17x more likely to die from a car accident than drivers under the age of 64. That’s not because the accidents are more extreme, but because seniors are more fragile and are simply not able to withstand the force of an accident as well as drivers much younger than them.

Research suggests that drivers aged 65 and older are 16% more likely to be involved in a crash, but this includes all age groups above that level and those figures are skewed by a few much older drivers.

In fact, a driver aged between 75 and 79 is less likely to be involved in a fatal car crash than someone aged 18 to 19, and only slightly more likely than a driver aged between 20 and 24. For drivers aged between 80 and 84, the rate increases slightly and they are roughly 30% to 40% more likely than drivers just a few years younger.

Only when you jump into the 85+ category does this become a serious problem. In fact, drivers in this age group are more likely to die in a fatal car crash than any other age group and are nearly twice as likely than those aged 80 to 84.

Furthermore, senior drivers are more likely to drive sober, wear a seatbelt, and abide by the rules of the road.

All things considered, senior drivers are a greater risk, but most of that risk concerns their own health and safety and not that of other drivers.

Benefits of Driving for Seniors

Although senior drivers run a greater risk of injury and death behind the wheel, driving also provides them with a number of benefits. Research suggests that when you take a senior’s driver’s license away, their mortality risk increases and they are more likely to suffer from depression and end up in a nursing home.

It seems counterintuitive, but it makes sense when you consider just how much freedom a driver’s license and a car can give a person. Take that freedom away, and they become more reliant on others, they can no longer see their friends or their family, and life becomes more of a chore.

For family members considering taking a senior parent’s driver’s license away, just imagine how much worse your own life would be if you didn’t have your car. 

When you lose your car, you lose a lot of your freedom. You become more isolated, more withdrawn, more depressed, and it’s a downward spiral from there.

Why do Seniors Stop Driving?

Whether a senior should stop driving or not is a decision that needs careful consideration. It’s something that should be discussed with doctors and family members. Depending on the state’s laws, they may also be required to undergo vision tests and other tests to make sure they are still fit to drive.

As noted above, many family members are concerned about the apparent risk that seniors face, but this is not a warning that the average senior is happy to heed. In fact, in a survey conducted by Consumer Reports, seniors were asked what it would take for them to consider giving up their license.

A massive 65% of seniors said they were “very likely” to give up their license if they deemed that driving posed a major threat to their health or the health of others, whereas only 29% said that they would do so on the bequest of their family members.

Surprisingly, the survey also noted that seniors would be more willing to listen to advice from their family doctor than a professional consultant. In fact, they considered a doctor’s advice to be more important than multiple accidents and close calls.

Tips for Senior Drivers

To stay safe behind the wheel, keep all the following tips in mind:

Get Checked

When someone wears glasses and/or a hearing aid after spending multiple years without seeing and/or hearing properly, their reaction is nearly always one of surprise. They see and hear things that they forgot they could see and here. Many report that it’s like watching a TV in high definition after spending years staring at a fuzzy CRT.

You may be wondering how this is relevant. It’s relevant because, if you don’t get your eyes and ears checked regularly, you have no way of knowing just how bad things have become.

Humans have a way of adapting, and this adaptation makes it easy to ignore what should be obvious. When your vision goes, you sit closer to the TV, increase the font size on your e-reader, and squint when you’re far away. Until you get your eyes checked and update your glasses, you won’t know how bad things have gotten.

Sleep Well

The older you get, the less you sleep. Medications, prostate problems, joint pains, and a host of other issues can reduce the sleep you get and may leave you tired throughout the day.

Many seniors get less than 6 hours a night and then catch up through the day with a nap or two. If you’re driving, you need to be as alert as possible, which means getting at least 6 hours, and preferably 8, every night.

If you can’t sleep through the night, make sure you only drive when you’re at your most alert. This will probably be in the morning, right before you have a mid-afternoon crash.

Check Your Medications

Consult with your doctor about your medications. Are you taking anything that increases your risk of being in an accident when you’re behind the wheel? If so, is there any way you can continue to drive without ignoring that risk?

For instance, if you’re taking strong painkillers but only consume them in the evening, you can drive during the day.

Get a Suitable Car

While many seniors like to stick with the same trusty car they have had for years, this may increase their risk of being involved in an accident. Invest in a car that is safe and won’t breakdown; a car that is automatic, has power steering, and is adapted to suit any mobility issues you have. 

Conclusion: Driving into Your Old Age

As a senior driver, your risk of being seriously hurt in a road traffic accident increases significantly. There’s no hiding from that fact, but if you make sensible choices before you get behind the wheel you can reduce that risk. 

As you age, the onus is on you to take the necessary steps to reduce your risk, stay healthy, and give your loved ones some much-needed peace of mind well into your 80s and beyond.