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Factors That Affect Your Ability to Drive Safely

Image shows an older woman driving a car. The picture is shot from the back seat, over her shoulder.

To drive safely for as long as possible, you need to consider three main factors: Your body, your vehicle, and your environment. 

Your Body

As we age, our bodies continue to change, and so do our abilities. When you recognize these changes, you can often make changes to your driving habits or your vehicle to continue driving safely. Some of the most common changes you should look for include:

  • Vision changes: Can you read road signs and see when there is not a lot of light? Does bright light and glare bother you? Can you see clearly when it is raining? Can you see both the road in front of you and the displays on the dashboard clearly without adjusting your eyeglasses?
  • Hearing changes: Can you hear horns and sirens? Can you hear road sounds, such as when your tires roll over rumble strips on the side of the road?
  • Changes in weight or posture: Do you sit higher or lower in the driver's seat than you used to? Do you have to be closer to or farther away from the steering wheel? Can you still move freely, access controls, see clearly in all directions, and watch dashboard displays?
  • Stiffness, weakness, and numbness: Can you easily turn your head to check over your shoulders for traffic and obstacles? Can you quickly move your foot from the gas pedal to the brake and back? Can you easily rotate the steering wheel and reach and use all controls, such as gear shifts, lights, windshield wipers, and parking brakes? 
  • Medications and medical conditions: Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any of the medications you take or medical conditions you have can cause dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, or loss of concentration. Ask about alternative treatments with fewer side effects.
  • Fear of driving and traffic: Do you sometimes feel nervous or afraid behind the wheel? Do you try to drive only in daylight hours or when fewer drivers are on the road? Do you prefer to take slower roads and avoid the highway?

Explore tips for older drivers.

Your Vehicle

As your body changes, your vehicle should, too. If you've owned your car for a long time, it may not fit your needs as well as it once did. For example: 

  • It may be too large or high for you to get into or out of, control safely, and see clearly around it in all directions.
  • It may be too small or low for you to get into or out of, move freely inside, and carry the things you need to take with you, such as a cane or walker.
  • The seat belts may not be long enough or adjust enough to fit you safely.
  • The mirrors may be broken, missing, too small, or do not adjust enough for you.
  • The seat and steering wheel may not adjust enough so that you can easily reach all the controls and pedals.
  • It may be in poor repair, unreliable, or difficult to find parts for.
  • It may lack essential safety equipment, such as seat belts, airbags, and anti-lock brakes.

There are several inexpensive items you can add to your vehicle to make it safer. These include:

  • Wide-angle mirrors or mirror extenders;
  • Seat belt extenders or adjusters;
  • Seat cushions and pedal extenders;
  • Third-party backing cameras;
  • Removable hand holds or steps.

Talk with a trusted mechanic about changes that can make your existing vehicle safer for you. Or, participate in the CarFit program, either in person or online, to find out how well you currently fit in your personal vehicle and highlight actions you can take to improve your fit.

If you are able, it may be time to invest in a newer, safer vehicle that is better suited to your current needs and abilities. Many cars, trucks, and SUVs built in the past 10 years have been designed with older drivers in mind. They offer many standard safety features, as well as optional equipment that can increase your safety, such as:

  • Anti-lock brakes;
  • Adaptive cruise control; 
  • Rear and side-view cameras;
  • Sensors that alert you to nearby objects;
  • Automatic braking assist;
  • Parking assist; and
  • Automatic headlights and windshield wipers.

If you have difficulty operating your vehicle and cannot afford to modify or replace it, it may be time to consider other transportation options.

Your Environment

Some environments and communities may be easier and safer for older drivers due to their design, geographic features, traffic levels, and more. Things to consider include:

  • Options for your comfort level: Are there options to busy highways to get where you are going if you are not comfortable driving in traffic? Similarly, if you feel safer on highways than on busy city streets, do you have that option?
  • The number and types of intersections: Do the routes you typically travel have many intersections? Are the intersections controlled with traffic lights or stop signs? Do intersections have left turn lanes and signals where you need them? Are signs and signals easy to see? Are there trees, shrubs, or buildings that block your views?
  • Railroads: Are there railroad crossings along your typical routes? Are they equipped with lights, alarms, and gates? Are you able to clearly hear the alarms and see the lights?
  • Safety features: Do the roads you typically travel have the latest safety features, such as wide shoulders, easy-to-read signs, reflective markings on the pavement, pedestrian and bike lanes, roundabouts, and more?
  • Wildlife: Do you typically travel rural roads with lots of wildlife nearby? Do you frequently see roadkill along your routes?
  • Geographic features: Do the roads you typically drive on have a lot of curves, hills? Are there tight turns or blind intersections and driveways?
  • Weather: Are roadways your travel often prone to flooding? Do you drive a lot on roads where winds and blowing snow and debris are a factor? Are there places for your to safely pull off the road if the conditions become to dangerous to drive?

To stay safe on the roads in your community, you may need to find new routes that are the best for you and your vehicle. You may want to check out transportation options that can allow you to drive less in environments where you are not comfortable.