It is common for older people to suffer from medical conditions, slower reaction times and a reduced ability to multitask that can impair your ability to use roads safely, especially if you drive. This may be a gradual process, so you may not notice straight away that your driving is affected.
The older you are, the more important it becomes to take the greatest possible care on and around roads. Older people typically suffer worse injuries in crashes, and have lower survival rates, because their bones tend to be less strong and they may not respond to emergency treatment as well.
Drivers must renew their licence at age 70, and every three years after that, confirming to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) that their eyesight meets current standards, and that they do not have any medical conditions that may affect their driving.
However, Brake advises older drivers to go further than this: ensuring you are fit to drive, and potentially deciding to stop driving if and when needed, is crucial to keeping yourself and other people around you safe. Follow the advice below and ensure you keep up-to-date with changing road rules: refresh your knowledge by buying or downloading a current copy of the Highway Code.
Risks for older drivers
If you drive, you need to be certain that your eyesight is good. Many people suffer from deteriorating eyesight as they age, and eye diseases are also more common among older people.
While older drivers are less likely to speed, they are more likely to crash in built-up environments, such as at junctions, often due to a failure to see something and react in time. Poor eyesight can be a particular problem at night, as night-time vision begins to deteriorate from around the age of 50, so restricting your driving to daylight hours can be safer. It is also wise to get tinted glasses made to your prescription for driving on bright days, as older eyes are similarly affected by dazzling sunlight.
Getting professional eye tests at least annually – free in the UK to those aged over 60 – is very important. Don’t assume you’ll notice an eyesight problem – vision can deteriorate significantly without you noticing. As well as checking vision over distance, professional tests can also check for problems in your central or peripheral vision, and catch conditions before they get worse. It’s therefore vital for older drivers to get their eyes tested with an optician annually, or straight away if you think there might be a problem.
If you are taking any medication, only drive if you are certain that it doesn't affect your ability to drive. It is an offence to drive, or attempt to drive, while unfit through over-the-counter or prescription drugs. Consult your doctor or pharmacist if you’re unsure. If you’re advised, or the label says, not to drive if you feel sleepy or impaired, assume that the medication could affect your driving and don’t drive: it’s impossible to accurately judge whether you’re impaired. If you’re taking medication that can affect driving, stop your driving, not your medication: coming off some medicines could put you more at risk.
Good hearing is important for driving, warning drivers of potential hazards or an emergency vehicle approaching. Hearing begins to deteriorate slightly from age 30-40, and the rate of deterioration increases as you get older. Older drivers should have hearing tests at least annually, and straight away if you notice any problems with your hearing.
Older people may suffer from joint and muscle stiffness, which can make it more difficult to turn in your seat to check blind spots or to make sure that the road is clear before reversing. In many cases, adjusting seat and steering column positions can help, along with extra blind spot mirrors and technological solutions such as power steering and automatic transmission. Doing 15-30 minutes of daily stretches and physical exercise can also improve your flexibility, range of motion and coordination.
Whatever your age, getting a good night’s sleep beforehand, and taking regular breaks while driving (of at least 15 minutes at least every two hours, preferably more), helps you stay alert and focused. You may also find it helps to avoid driving long journeys and at times of the day you’re most prone to drowsiness (like mid afternoon and late at night). It’s also important to know what steps to take if you feel tired at the wheel.
Time to stop driving?
No-one likes to feel that they are losing their independence or to worry that their quality of life may be affected if they no longer drive. However, when balanced against the risk of injuring yourself or someone else in a crash, you may reach a time when it’s a good idea to consider stopping driving.
If you think you may be beginning to lose concentration, have slower reactions, or lose your memory, or are feeling increasingly anxious about driving, consider discussing the subject with family members to see if they have any concerns; and make an appointment with your doctor to talk about your continuing fitness to drive. You might also find that having your driving assessed at a mobility centre can help you to make a decision.
If you decide to stop driving, you can still be active and mobile without relying on car travel. Public transport can be a cheap, easy, sociable and stress-free alternative. Pensioners are entitled to significant discounts, including free off-peak bus travel in England – see Age UK’s information on transport concessions for older people.
You can also call your local council and ask about any local community bus services you can use.
As well as protecting yourself and other road users, using buses or trains could save you money (no more road tax, insurance, maintenance costs, or petrol and parking costs) and help reduce pollution.
Campaign in your community
Retired people can make great campaigners, as they often have the experience, skills, patience and time to make a powerful difference in their community. If your community suffers from speeding traffic, a lack of pavements or safe crossing places, or limited public transport services, find out how to campaign in your community to make it a safer, healthier, more sociable place.
- Make Brake’s Pledge to keep yourself and others safe
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Updated September 2015