How to be a safer driver after 65

As you get older, you may find that some important aspects of driving get more difficult. Here’s how to get your brain in gear to stay safer on the road.

Older adult couple in a car safely driving

You’ve always considered yourself to be a good, cautious driver. But even if you do everything right on the road, driving can become more difficult as you get older. 

That’s partly because your vision and cognitive abilities tend to get worse in your later years. Aging can affect everything from your reaction time to your peripheral (side) vision when you get behind the wheel.  

At the same time, driving is a crucial part of staying engaged, social, and living independently. In fact, there are 48 million licensed drivers ages 65 and older in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

While scientists haven’t discovered how to make you age in reverse, they have studied ways you can improve your odds of continuing to drive safely as you get older. That includes training your brain to help quicken your reaction time and sharpen your peripheral vision, among other things.  
Here are some of the most common challenges for aging drivers, plus tips to improve your driving today.  

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Challenge #1: Cognitive changes 

Some of the most basic driving issues are rooted in brain function. Our ability to process information tends to slow down as we age, explains Karlene Ball, Ph.D. She’s an experimental psychologist who specializes in gerontology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  

“If your brain is slower, it will impact your reaction time to things coming at you or when noticing important things in your environment,” she says. That could be another car at an intersection or a yellow light changing to red.  
Processing speed also affects peripheral vision. The faster your brain, the larger the visual field you can take in with every glance — giving you enough time to see a hazard coming at you from the side in time to stop. 

What’s more, decreased reasoning ability can lead to trouble adjusting to detours or changes on the road, says Ball. So, say there’s construction on your route home, and you’re forced to take a detour. That can pose a problem if you’re unfamiliar with the new route.  

Safety tip: If you’re driving somewhere new, plan how to get there in advance — don’t just hop in the car and rely on your GPS. Planning ahead can help familiarize you with unknown roads and routes. 

Doing BrainHQ’s science-backed brain training exercises keeps you safer when you’re driving, improving your cognitive function to help you think faster and focus better. That can help you stay safe on the road — and keep you driving later in life.  
In the  ACTIVE study, older adults who completed 10 hours of BrainHQ brain-speed training exercises reduced at-fault car crashes by 48%. Other research has found that BrainHQ’s exercises can help people brake more quickly and make fewer dangerous movements while driving. 

Build and maintain your brain health without having to leave your home. Where to start? Brain Fitness News. Sign up for our newsletter today!​  

Challenge #2: Vision issues

As you get older, your eyesight can change. Maybe it’s more difficult to read traffic signs or see clearly at night. It might take you longer to react to things that aren’t directly in your line of sight. The glare of oncoming headlights might also bother you at night.  

Plus, eye diseases such as glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration can cause vision problems, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). All these factors can put you at greater risk of being in a car accident.  

Safety tip: It’s a good idea to get your vision checked at least once a year, according to the CDC. You’ll want to go more frequently if you notice any changes in your vision, such as cloudiness. And if you wear glasses or contact lenses, make sure you have them on while you’re driving. 

Challenge #3: Medication side effects

Nearly 89% of older adults take at least one prescription drug, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And many medications come with side effects. Are you taking more than one drug? Different medications can also interact with each other.  

Many times, medications hit older adults harder than younger ones, says Ball. “Anything that causes drowsiness or has a sedative effect is going to affect their brain function and how quickly they can react to things.”  

Safety tip: Read the warning labels on your medications. Also, ask your doctor or the pharmacist if it’s all right to drive while taking the medication. If you think a drug makes you sleepy, light-headed, or unfocused, tell your doctor. They may be able to switch you to a different medication or lower the dose. 

Challenge #4: Health conditions

Certain health conditions can affect your ability to drive safely. For example, diabetes may cause pain, burning, or numbness in the feet, which can make it difficult to brake or feel the gas pedal. Arthritis may make it uncomfortable to turn your head as you back out of a parking spot, or it may cause pain in your hands when you grip the steering wheel.  

Safety tip: In addition to talking with your doctor, you may want to consider hand controls for the brake and gas pedals. Are there certain times of day when your symptoms are worse? Avoid driving during those hours. 

Challenge #5: Hearing problems 

It’s not unusual to start losing your hearing as you get older. Part of that happens in your ear (for example, your ability to hear high-pitched sounds) and part of that happens in your brain (your ability to notice a specific, important sound in a noisy environment). Hearing well — like noticing a siren even when the radio is on and a friend is talking to you — is important for driving.  

Safety tip: Older adults should have their hearing checked at least every three years, according to the NIA. If you wear hearing aids, always put them in while driving. And if you like to listen to music or audio books in the car — but are easily distracted or can’t hear over a lot of noise — try turning them lower. You want to be all ears for the sounds of the road. 

What else can I do to stay safer while driving?  

Making sure you have a handle on the five situations above is a great start. Here are some additional safety tips:  

  • Always wear a seatbelt.  
  • Don’t drink and drive — or drive after using medical marijuana. 
  • If it’s in your budget, get a newer car with built-in safety features that make safe driving easier. That could include adaptive cruise control, backup cameras, lane assist, and collision warning. 
  • Leave extra space between your car and the car in front of you. That’ll give you enough room to react if you need to make an abrupt stop. 
  • Cut down on distractions. Don’t eat while driving, and try not to fiddle with the radio. And never type into your phone or read texts while you’re driving. 
  • Don’t take the wheel when road conditions are bad (rain, snow, ice). Having improved reaction time may not matter if your wheels start to skid.  

Bottom line: Everyone — no matter what their age — can benefit from paying more attention while driving. Take extra care when you’re on the road, stay focused, and know your limits. 

Another great option to test and sharpen your driving skills? Take a science-backed BrainHQ brain-training course. And get this: Some Medicare Advantage plans offer free access to BrainHQ at no additional cost to you. Check your eligibility today.    

Additional sources:
Statistic on older adults driving: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
Statistic on prescription drugs: Kaiser Family Foundation 
Aging and safe driving: National Institute on Aging