Road Injury Prevention Litigation Journal
Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
February, 2001
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Drivers 55 Plus: Suggestions for Improvement

(The following article is reproduced, with permission, from the website of the American Automobile Association (AAA) at If you would like to complete the questionnaire on which these suggestions are based, click here to go to "Drivers 55 Plus: Self-Rating Form" published in this issue of Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal.)


1.     I signal and check to the rear when I change lanes.
2.     I wear a seat belt.
3.     I try to stay informed of changes in driving and highway regulations.
4.     Intersections bother me: There is too much to watch for from all directions.
5.     I find it difficult to decide when to join traffic on a busy interstate highway.
6.     I think I am slower than I used to be in reacting to dangerous driving situations.
7.     When I am really upset, I show it in my driving.
8.     My thoughts wander when I am driving.
9.     Traffic situations make me angry.
10.   I get regular eye checks to keep my vision at its sharpest.
11.   I check with my doctor or pharmacist about the effects of my medications an driving ability.
12.   I try to stay abreast of current information on health practices and habits.
13.   My children, other family members, or friends are concerned about my driving ability.
14.   How many traffic tickets, warnings, or "discussions" with officers have you had in the past two years?
15.   How many crashes have you had during the past two years?

1. I signal and check to the rear when I change lanes.

Even if you checked "Never," you probably know that "Always" is the only acceptable answer. Checking rearview and side mirrors, looking to the rear to cover the blind spots, and signaling well before your maneuver are the only ways to avoid hitting a car when changing lanes.

But why don't you do these things all the time? In some cases, you might simply forget. In observational studies, older drivers report being unaware of having failed to look to the rear before changing lanes or backing up. Many of our driving habits are exactly that -- habits. And we stop being aware of our actions, especially if we've driven accident-free for a long time.

Many older drivers stop looking over their shoulders because they've lost flexibility. If you have arthritis, then you know how painful a quick look over the shoulder can be.

If looking over your shoulder to check for traffic is difficult for you, you'll want to:

Safety Tips:

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2. I wear a seat belt.

The only acceptable answer is "Always." In nearly every state, wearing seat belts is now the law. For people over 55, there is an added incentive for wearing seat belts: One-half of all traffic fatalities could have been lessened to injuries if the people had been wearing seat belts, and people over 65 are more likely than younger persons to be injured or killed, when involved in an accident.

Even if you are going to drive only a short distance under ideal conditions, it makes sense to wear your seat belt. Typical collisions involving older drivers occur on clear days, on straight, dry pavement, and at intersections within 15 miles of the driver's home. To be effective, seat belts should be properly worn. The negative tales you may have heard about seat belts, such as being trapped in a car that catches fire, are either myths or extraordinarily rare events. Properly fastened seat belts are unquestionably the best way to reduce injuries and fatalities following a crash. You can increase your chances of surviving a collision or reducing injury by taking the following steps:

Safety Tips:

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3. I try to stay informed of changes in driving and highway regulations.

The best answer is "Always," but "Sometimes" is certainly better than "Never."

Drivers of any age can be a menace if they do not know and follow "the rules of the road," no matter how good a driver they have been in the past. New traffic laws and devices include right-turn-on-red laws, directional signals regulating lane use, and shared left-turn lane markings.

Knowledge of signs and symbols can help you, especially if your ability to see these devices is diminishing. Sometimes, just knowing what the shapes of signs mean can help you anticipate their message. Familiarity and knowing what to do eliminates hesitation and uncertainty when you need to make a decision fast.

Because we all want to share the road safely, we need to understand traffic laws, devices, signs, and symbols. Here's how you can learn more about them:

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4. Intersections bother me: There is too much to watch for from all directions.

Ideally, you might like to answer "Never," but if you checked "Sometimes" or "Always," you are not alone. Everyone has problems with intersections. You must interact with other drivers and pedestrians whose movements and decisions are difficult to anticipate.

Intersections are one of the more common sites of collisions involving older drivers, especially left-turning situations. How comfortable you feel around intersections can be an early warning sign that you need a refresher course or other assistance. Listen to your instincts and take a good look at your driving skills. What bothers you most about intersections? Is it an inability to handle all the information quickly enough? Are you unsure about how to position the car for a left or right turn? Do you find it difficult to turn the steering wheel because of arthritis or some other physical problem? Sometimes, this sort of analysis can lead you to solutions. If you find intersections difficult, see the following steps for improvement:

Safety Tips:

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5. I find it difficult to decide when to join traffic on a busy interstate highway.

Most of us would like to answer "Never," but if you checked "Sometimes" or "Always," you are not alone.

Almost all drivers have some feelings of insecurity and nervousness about entering a busy interstate highway or any high-speed road. If you dislike the speed of traffic and the number of cars on interstates or have stopped using them entirely, then you will probably want to improve your skills so you can use them more confidently.

If you live where interstates are convenient and you travel them often, you probably have gained experience and feel confident about driving on them. However, if you drive them infrequently or not at all, you are probably fearful of what you "don't know" about them. Even if you have experience, there are more cars, faster traffic, and more congestion than ever before. Unless you have stayed informed of these changes and have made them part of your everyday driving experience, interstates can be intimidating.

Here are some suggestions for improving your skills on interstate highways:

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6. I think I am slower than I used to be in reacting to dangerous driving situations.

"Never" is the only fully satisfactory answer here, although you may have answered "Sometimes" and still be considered a careful driver. Emergencies and dangerous situations may be relatively uncommon, but fast and safe reaction to them is essential. Most older drivers tend to have excellent judgment when driving. It is in reacting to emergencies that some older drivers most markedly demonstrate a slowing down.

Older drivers have trouble integrating information from several sources at once, and therefore respond more slowly to dangerous situations.

We begin to feel the physical and psychological changes of aging in middle age, and some of these changes can increase driving risk. The increased collision rate per mile of travel that begins between ages 55 and 65 parallels certain age-related declines in driving skills.

To respond quickly to a traffic situation requires that several skills be sharp: First, you must see or hear the danger. Second, you have to recognize that the situation is dangerous and requires action. Third, you must decide how to act. And fourth, you must act appropriately. A slight slowing down in each of these skills can result in a much slower overall response time to traffic emergencies.

What can you do to improve your "emergency" skills?

Safety Tips:

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7. When I am really upset, I show it in my driving.

The only acceptable answer is "Never." It takes only a brief acting out of emotions or a moment of inattention to produce a collision. Anger is an emotion to keep out of the car when you are in it with the motor running.

As you age, experience and good judgment make you a better driver. However, if you were aggressive and hostile on the road when young, you are likely to be much the same today. The difference is that now, because of decreased driving skills, you may not have the ability to recover from those dangerous highway situations that arise out of aggression and hostility.

Take the following steps to minimize anger behind the wheel:

Safety Tips:

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8. My thoughts wander when I am driving.

The ideal answer is "Never," but even the best drivers catch themselves at this "Sometimes." However, if you checked "Always," you are a dangerous driver. Driving is a complicated and demanding task, requiring continuous concentration. Even momentary lapses can lead to danger.

Investigations of collisions and fatalities of older drivers, particularly those over age 65, show that inattention and failing to take action are underlying causes, or at least contributing factors.

Not seeing road signs or stop signs, failing to yield, and so on, are major problems of older drivers cited for violations or involved in collisions. These problems are thought to be due to inattention.

Of course, you have probably seen drivers in animated conversations or talking on car phones and noticed how it affected their driving -- slamming on brakes or drifting from their lanes. Other drivers drink coffee, groom themselves, or try to glance at reading materials while driving. In an emergency, these inattentive drivers may not be able to return from their diversion in time to take evasive action. Many conditions that you may not be able to control can interfere with your ability to concentrate: emotional upset, fatigue, illness, medications, alcohol, full meals, pain, or a loud radio.

One area in which you have total control is your decision to give driving your full attention. Give driving the attention it deserves, and you will buy yourself valuable seconds of reaction time in an emergency.

There are several things you can do to keep your thoughts from wandering:

Safety Tips:

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9. Traffic situations make me angry.

The best answer is "Never," but those who have been stuck in traffic for long periods understand why "Sometimes" might be chosen. An answer of "Always" reveals that some changes are needed.

Anger behind the wheel comes out in dangerous ways. Most people trapped in slow- moving traffic feel frustrated, and this frustration can lead to anger at the situation. However, some people direct their anger at other people, instead of the traffic situation itself. This can lead to inappropriate reactions, honking horns, yelling at other drivers, cutting others off in traffic, blocking intersections, or playing one-upsmanship games with other drivers.

When drivers become over-emotional, all out of proportion to the situation, it is a clear sign that other emotions are the true cause and driving has become an outlet for expressing anger. Many emotions can turn into anger. Fear of other drivers, who they feel are driving recklessly, can bring on violent anger. Anxiety over being late and anger at other situations in one's life can also provoke unwarranted anger. All these emotions are counter-productive.

The worst part of the anger is how drivers express it. If you find yourself driving erratically, driving too fast, or tailgating someone "to teach them a lesson," then you need to stop and ask yourself: "Is it worth it?" Anyone with a heart condition knows that reacting to every little annoyance and frustration with anger can be dangerous; we all need to understand that reacting to driving situations with aggressive driving can be just as fatal as a heart attack.

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to make driving less stressful and make your own responses less emotional:

Safety Tips:

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10. I get regular eye checks to keep my vision at its sharpest.

The only acceptable answer is "Always."

Eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all sensing clues in driving come through the eyes. Poor visual capacity is directly related to poor driving. Reduced performance from faulty vision shows up in slowed response to signals, signs, and traffic events in ways that can lead to a collision.

Doctors cannot correct all vision problems, but only doctors can help you with those vision problems that are correctable, such as visual acuity (ability to focus) and disease-related vision loss. Seeing a doctor on a regular basis is the only way to be sure that your vision is the best it can be.

Aging does bring vision problems, but we all share these difficulties in a fairly predictable, natural way. No matter how well you have taken care of your eyes, these problems will develop.

Between 40 and 60 our night vision becomes progressively worse. Pupils become smaller, the muscles less elastic, and the lenses become thicker and less clear. A 60- year-old driver must have 10 times the light required by a 20-year-old.

During this time, we become sensitive to glare, which also makes driving at night difficult. Your eyes' lenses can become thicker and yellowed with age, resulting in a fogging vision and sensitivity to glare. A 55-year-old takes eight times as long to recover from glare as a 16-year-old.

Visual changes accelerate at age 55. You begin to miss objects that are not moving, such as pedestrians waiting to enter a crosswalk.

Around age 70, your peripheral vision becomes a serious problem. Poor peripheral vision increases your chances of being involved in a collision. Drivers receive 98% of their visual communication through peripheral vision. Those with poor peripheral vision have collision rates twice as high as those with normal peripheral vision.

Colors become harder to see. Red colors do not appear bright to many older eyes, and it may take some senior drivers twice as long as it took in earlier years to detect the flash of brake lights.

Another visual ability that declines over the years is depth perception: how close or how far you are in relation to a car or object ahead. This capacity is especially critical when trying to judge how fast other cars are coming, which contributes to the problems you may have in making left turns.

Several medical conditions that tend to come with age can affect sight: cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetes. Regular visits to your doctor can help you head off their blinding effects.

There are several things you can do to handle the loss of vision that comes with aging:

Safety Tips:

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11. I check with my doctor or pharmacist about the effects of my medications an driving ability.

The only acceptable answer is "Always."

While you might be wary of the effects of prescription drugs, even over- the-counter drugs can reduce driving ability.

Twenty-five percent of all drug prescriptions go to people over 65, who make up II percent of the total population. Older people consume more drugs than any other age group.

The drugs that slow us down generally also slow down or reduce our capacity to make decisions and process information rapidly. And quick decisions are needed to maneuver a vehicle safely. Tranquilizers or cold remedies, such as cold tablets, cough syrup, and sleeping pills, can reduce driving ability.

Combinations of drugs present another danger, because these combinations can bring on unexpected side effects and bad reactions. If you have more than one doctor prescribing medications without knowing what the others are prescribing, you could be in danger.

Another drug, which you may not think of as a drug, with this same effect is alcohol. Alcohol has a powerful impact on our total system, physical and psychological. Alcohol is probably the single most important human factor in fatal collisions for drivers over 65.

It is important to avoid alcoholic beverages when taking other medications. With few exceptions, combining alcohol and other drugs significantly multiplies the impairment of your driving skills. Even worse, they make a potent additive that in extreme cases can cause coma or death.

The only safe practice is to avoid alcohol completely if there is any chance that you will have to drive. One's tolerance for alcohol decreases steadily with age. Older people are also less efficient at ridding the system of alcohol. Food, mood, fatigue, medication, general health, weight, and size of body can all make a difference in predicting overall effect.

Keep in mind the penalties of drinking and driving: heavy fines, jail sentences, and revocation of license.

You can ensure that your medications are not combining to impair your driving skills by taking the following steps:

Safety Tips:

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12. I try to stay abreast of current information on health practices and habits.

The preferred answer is "Always," but "Sometimes" is also understandable. However, if you checked "Never," then you may have given up on your personal health or think that you have no control over it. You have far more control than you might think: What you eat, how much you exercise, and regular visits to the doctor (and following the doctor's advice) can help you keep driving longer and extend your life.

Eighty percent of the two million annual deaths in the United States and more than half of the disabilities caused by chronic disease are closely related to personal health habits and behavior. Individual lifestyles have a direct relationship to longevity and the quality of life. It all begins with your attitude about how much control you believe you have over the quality of your life. It ends with how much of it you are willing to exercise.

We all want to be able to handle the demands of safe driving. To keep your license, you must remain alert and quick to respond in emergency situations. You also need to keep up to date about health habits that keep your mind and body in shape and able to handle the demands of safe driving.

True, this [article] has emphasized the reductions in driving skills that come with age. But even though research points to changes in the central nervous system as the culprits, you can reduce this slowing down with increased motivation to improve and stay in shape. Exercise reduces the extent of slowing, and extended exercise may eliminate it completely.

Learn to appreciate the close ties between personal health habits and driving skills. The same attitude that encourages you to remain informed on health practices will also help you to feel in control of your future as a driver.

You can stay informed by following these steps:

Safety Tips:

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13. My children, other family members, or friends are concerned about my driving ability.

"Never" is the best answer here, but many older drivers have been aware of critical comments on their driving. If you have heard such comments, you may feel that the critics are worse drivers than you or are generally afraid in certain traffic situations, no matter who is driving.

It is difficult to accept criticism, but it can be a valuable source of information about your driving skills. If you chose "Always" or "Sometimes," then you can use this information as an opportunity to learn where your driving needs the most improvement.

Of all age groups, drivers over 50 have the most misconceptions of the actual risk of having a collision. These misconceptions grow with age. Furthermore, older drivers underestimate how much their own actions and problems contribute to accident risk.

Listen to criticism, so you can improve your driving skills and avoid collisions. Once you start having collisions, the law can take your license away.

Here are some suggestions for how to listen to criticism and comments and turn them into a positive effect on your driving:

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14. How many traffic tickets, warnings, or "discussions" with officers have you had in the past two years?

Of course, "None" is the preferred answer here, for it would be a sign that you are doing everything you should be doing to remain a safe driver (or at least have been alert enough not to have been caught doing the things you should not be doing). "One or two" incidents might mean that you are not as current as you should be on laws and rules of the road. "Three or more" demands a serious look at how you are driving. If you have been stopped many times, then you must be driving dangerously a good part of the time. If little can realistically be done to reduce that danger, you should make alternate plans for transportation.

Some older drivers are aware of their limits and cope with them. Others, however, overestimate their real capabilities and do not adjust their driving habits. The most cited problems of older drivers include failure to yield, failure to observe signs and signals, careless crossing of intersections, changing lanes without due regard for others, improper backing, and driving too slowly. Inattention and having too much information to handle at one time seem to be the root of most of these conditions.

There are several positive steps you can take if you have received traffic tickets or warnings:

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15. How many crashes have you had during the past two years?

Once again, "None" is the most desirable answer. Depending on the severity, "One or two" can be one or two too many. If you answered "Three or more," we are thankful that you are here and able to participate in this self-evaluation experience.

A collision is the best predictor of another collision. One collision is often a signal that others are on the way.

Older drivers are likely to be held at fault for many of the same reasons for which they receive traffic citations: failing to yield, not observing traffic signs and signals, careless crossing at intersections, improper turning and lane changing, and careless backing up.

Older drivers with the most recorded collisions do most of their driving under conditions conducive to collisions -- at night and in bad weather. They also have a higher incidence of medical conditions, such as heart and artery problems, arthritis, broken bones, visual and hearing problems, and diabetes.

Denial of diminishing skills is the older driver's greatest danger. Denial results in a continuation of the most dangerous driving habits and keeps the driver from learning new and better ways to drive. Without correction, dangerous driving habits can lead to tragedy.

If you have been involved in a collision, act at once by taking one or more of the following steps:

Safety Tips:

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Driving Improvement Courses

The American Automobile Association (AAA) and the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) offer driver improvement courses, including a course designed for older drivers, the "Mature Operator Course."

Contact your local AAA or CAA club to find out about driving improvement courses available in your area. They will also be able to send you the brochures mentioned in this [article]. To find out the telephone number of your local AAA club use your phone directory or call 1-800-AAA-HELP.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) offers the "55 Alive Course." Write to AARP 55 ALIVE, 601 E Street, NW, Washington, DC 20049.

The National Safety Council offers a Defensive Driving Course nationally. Some areas offer a course specifically for older drivers. Contact the local chapter of the National Safety Council or call 1-800-621-6244 to find out about courses in your area.

Many hospitals and senior centers sponsor programs to improve the driving skills of drivers age 55 and up.

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