It should come as no surprise to anyone that as we age, our bodies and minds change. Our ability to safely operate a vehicle can be affected by those changes. What may surprise many drivers are the physical and mental processes that affect driving skills can start long before a driver falls into the "mature" operator category, age 50 and older.
Physiological and psychological changes occur at different rates for everyone. Our vision and hearing are the senses that suffer the greatest, most rapid decline. When you consider that our ability to focus peaks at about age 10 and hearing generally peaks between ages 10 and 15, it is easy to understand that both senses decline significantly over the years. If we understand that these and other physical and mental changes are inevitable, we can make adjustments in the way we drive, when we drive, and how we drive.
Many older drivers have difficulty adjusting to altered traffic patterns and roadway designs. Reacting properly to traffic conditions, traffic signs, and signals are easier if you are familiar with the route. The traffic patterns, streets, and traffic signals are easier to negotiate, and there are fewer surprises to deal with and fewer decisions to make.
Avoid intersections you know to be dangerous or do not feel uncomfortable with, such as multilane, complex intersections or ones that are not controlled by a traffic signal. Routes that reduce the number of left turns are safer. Left-turn intersections with no traffic signal are potential hazards. These intersections require the driver to cross one or more lanes of traffic and to accurately judge the speed and rate-of-closure of other vehicles.
Unless it is absolutely necessary, delay single-purpose trips until you have more than one destination. Combining trips places you in traffic less and reduces the number of miles driven. It has the added benefit of saving gas and diminishing the wear and tear on your vehicle.
Give yourself more time to drive. Plan your trips to avoid morning and evening rush hours. Night driving presents greater challenges, so most trips should be made during daylight hours with enough time to return home before nightfall. Avoid long road trips that cause fatigue. Mature operators tire faster, so break up your trip with frequent rest stops, and stop early for the night. Fatigue promotes inattention and delayed reaction times.
Because of the number of vehicles, their close proximity, and dealing with pedestrians, parking lots challenge most drivers. The driver's main focus may be on searching for a spot to park rather than on other obstacles. When parking, pull through to the next space to avoid having to back out when you leave. Backing requires a number of head and eye movements, which can be difficult. Some mature drivers require handicap spaces, but the spaces are not always available. However, in many cases, there may be parking spots on the side of a business that may be just as convenient as handicap parking.
Mature operators must know what effects prescribed medications have on their driving ability. In some cases, the driver may be using more than one prescription at a time. Individually, the drugs may not affect the driver, but together they may prove disastrous. Before getting behind the wheel, know what side effects your medications can produce. Ask your doctor about the effect when combining prescriptions.
Adverse weather conditions can be a hazard to any driver. Low-visibility conditions such as fog, smoke, rain, glare, and snow increases the chances of becoming involved in a crash. In many cases, these types of conditions not only reduce visibility but also reduce the vehicle's traction.
Vehicle maintenance is essential to safe driving. Tires are often neglected and lack the appropriate air pressure to properly grip the road and stop the vehicle. Because mature operators, on average, take a greater amount of time to see a hazard, and process and act on the information in an emergency situation, it is even more important to schedule regular maintenance checkups to ensure their cars run at their peak.
Basically, you understand your own body and have a good idea of what you can and can't do, but that's not always the case. Some mature operators may feel that the experience they have behind the wheel can overcome hazardous driving situations. In some circumstances, however, other people's opinions may be more objective than your own.
Think about your alternatives which may include taking a different route to your destination, changing the time you leave, waiting until bad weather clears, or having someone else drive. Even taking a taxi may be a viable alternative to driving when conditions are not favorable.
As you probably know from experience, driving long distances can cause physical aches and pains. Do not drive for more than eight hours (less if you are feeling tired), and avoid driving during times of day when you're likely to feel sleepy. Research shows that midnight to seven A.M. and two to four P.M. are the times when drowsiness is most likely to cause a crash. Stop every 100 miles or every two hours and take a break. Have a beverage or a snack and walk around, moving your arms. This mild exercise will help keep you alert, improve circulation, and can help prevent stiffness and fatigue. To stay alert while driving, keep your eyes moving and set the car's temperature controls on the cool side. If you feel tired, find a rest area or a place where you can park safely and take a nap.
Think about what tasks you do every time you get behind the wheel of a car. You must coordinate the actions of your hands, feet, eyes, ears, and body movements. At the same time, you must decide how to react to what you see, hear, and feel in relation to other cars and drivers, traffic signs and signals, conditions of the highway, and the performance of your car.
These decisions are usually made close to other vehicles and must be converted quickly into action - brake, steer, accelerate, or a combination of all - to maintain or adjust your position in traffic. And these decisions must be made frequently. About 20 major decisions are needed for each mile driven; drivers frequently have less than one-half second to act to avoid a collision.
While the conventional wisdom is that older drivers represent a substantial threat to other drivers, the truth of the matter may be that they represent a bigger threat to themselves. Sadly, as drivers age things rapidly go from bad to worse.
The record of older drivers is good, when you consider the number of collisions per driver, but when you consider the number of collisions per miles driven, this record is surprisingly bad. Older drivers have fewer collisions, because they drive less and at less dangerous times. But when they are in a crash, it can be very serious. In a two-car fatal collision, where one driver is 65 or older, the older driver is 3.5 times more likely to be killed. Injuries that are seen as moderate to severe for most people are fatal to people aged 55 and older.
Knowing the needs of other traffic like trucks, buses, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians is very important. For example, trucks should be provided with extra space, as they need wider turning lanes, watch out for buses, as they need to enter traffic from stopping lanes, and give pedestrians plenty of time to cross the road.
The U.S. has 18.5 millions licensed drivers aged 71 and over, it's the key to their independence. Some drive well, some atrociously. Driving has changed a lot since most of us first got behind the wheel. Keep a constant watch on your surroundings, the vehicles and people around you at all times. When we make simple adjustments in the way we drive, when we drive, and how we drive, we can safely stay on the road for many years.
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