Adult children often find themselves concerned about a senior loved one’s fitness for driving. Media stereotypes would lead us to believe that senior citizen drivers are a hazard on the highways. The truth is that older drivers are more likely to cause harm to themselves than they are to others.
But there are senior driver safety measures families can take to ensure an older loved is safe behind the wheel. One way is to help them connect with a senior-friendly vehicle and another is to be aware of and monitor health conditions they may have or develop as they continue to age.
Health Checks for Senior Driving Safety
Age can impact fitness for driving. A few of the common age-related physical changes that can have an effect on an older adult’s ability to safely operate a vehicle include:
- Vision loss and difficulty driving at night
- Slower reflexes and loss of flexibility
- Reduced range of motion skills
An older adult’s physician is the best person to assess these changes and determine if a senior is safe for driving.
It is also important for families to monitor a few other health-related issues:
- Physical activity: An inactive senior is more likely to struggle with driving tasks such as rotating the top half of the body to look behind them before pulling out of a parking spot or merge in traffic.
- Vision and hearing: Loss of hearing or decreased vision can make driving more challenging. Many older adults notice this most at night. Make sure your senior loved one has yearly screenings.
- Chronic health conditions: As symptoms of some chronic health conditions progress, an older adult might be less safe driving. Equally important is to keep an eye out for side effects of medications or drug interactions. Some can make older adults dizzy or drowsy. Both are hazardous if a senior climbs behind the wheel of their car.
Safe Cars for Seniors: Features to Look For
The type of car an older adult drives can make a big difference in how safe they are. Finding a vehicle that can help compensate for common age-related physical changes is the key.
A few features to look for in a senior-friendly vehicle are:
- Air bag safety: Older adults often sit closer to the steering wheel than younger ones. This puts them at greater risk for serious injury if an air bag deploys. Can air bags be adjusted to accommodate shorter drivers?
- Blind spots: Loss of flexibility makes it more difficult for older drivers to turn their head to look over their shoulder. Cars with blind spots can further exaggerate this risk. Look for a vehicle with good mirror coverage and fewer blind spots. Cars with back-up cameras are also good choices.
- Six-way adjustable seats: For seniors who have joint discomfort or limited range of motion in their legs, knees, and hips, these types of seats are easier to adjust. This allows them to more easily get in and out of the car, as well as adjust for more comfortable driving.
- Pedal placement: We’ve all seen stories on the news of an elderly driver causing an accident because they hit the gas pedal instead of the brake. Find a vehicle where these two pedals are located further apart.
- Seat belt: Range of motion often decreases with aging. This makes it tougher for a senior to reach over their shoulder and pull the seat belt harness over and latch it. Before an older loved one purchases a car, make sure they sit in the seat and fasten their seatbelt to be sure it can be adjusted properly.
- Keyless entry and ignition: For older drivers who suffer from arthritis, stiff or frequently numb fingers, keyless entry can reduce the amount of time they may need to have fumbling with keys.
- Thicker steering wheels: This may not seem like a big one, but for seniors who have seen a decline in their fine motor skills, a thinner steering wheel can force them to have a tighter grip on the steering wheel, resulting in pain when turning the wheel. A thicker steering wheel doesn’t require as tense a grip.
Consumer Reports rates the following vehicles among the safest for older drivers:
- Chevy Impala
- Kia Soul
- Chrysler 300
- Honda Accord
- Lexus RX
- Honda Odyssey
- Subaru Forester
- Toyota Avalon
- Toyota Camry
For an additional breakout of features by make and model of car, visit Triple A’s website to see how your senior loved one’s current vehicle stacks up. Or, if you’re shopping for a new or used car, this list may be helpful in terms of helping you make a safer decision.
Have a Professional Assess a Senior Driver’s Skills
Finally, it might help to have a professional work with your senior driver to explore fitness programs and adaptive equipment. The American Occupational Therapy Association has members who specialize in limiting a senior driver’s risks.