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Driving tips for seniors

Driving tips for seniors

Being able to drive gives everyone a sense of independence and freedom – and this is equally true for senior drivers. But can the elderly make themselves safer on the road?

A recent research study in America has found that nearly 90% of older drivers fail to make adaptations to their vehicles in the interests of improving road safety and extending their time behind the steering wheel.

According to the study – released by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety – common vehicle adaptations such as pedal extensions, and even inexpensive modifications such as seat cushions and steering wheel covers, can help to improve safety by reducing a senior driver’s crash risk.

The study found that motorists aged 65 and over were more than twice as likely as younger drivers to be killed or seriously injured when involved in an accident. The association urged seniors to consider making the necessary adaptations to their vehicles in order to reduce crash risk and extend the time they can continue to drive.

“While many seniors are considered to be safe drivers, they are also the most vulnerable,” said Dr David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Our research suggests that most senior drivers are not taking advantage of simple and inexpensive features like steering wheel covers which can greatly improve their safety and the safety of others on the road.”

The research formed the first phase of the AAA’s Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project. Researchers are currently engaged in generating the largest and most comprehensive senior driver database in existence.

Information gleaned from the data will be aimed at supporting more in-depth studies to better understand the risks and transportation needs of older drivers.

For the first phase of the study, researchers investigated 12 vehicle adaptations and found that fewer than nine percent of senior drivers reported using any of the devices in their vehicles. Some of the devices that can be purchased and put to use in new or existing vehicles are:

  • Cushions and seat pads, which are used to elevate the driving position and improve line of sight – and which can help alleviate back or hip pain;
  • Convex or multifaceted mirrors, which improve rearward visibility and minimise blind spots;
  • Pedal extensions, which are aimed at helping drivers to sit a safe distance from the steering wheel airbag as well as optimising view;
  • Steering wheel covers, which improve grip for drivers with arthritic hand  joints;
  • Hand controls, which allow drivers to perform all vehicle manoeuvres and functions without the use of their legs.

Elin Schold Davis, project coordinator of the American Occupational Therapy Association’s Older Driver Initiative, says occupational therapy practitioners trained in driving rehabilitation are especially valuable in connecting the dots between medical challenges that can affect driving and the appropriate equipment and adaptations needed to remain safely independent in the vehicle.

“When an ache or pain begins hindering driving ability, many older drivers are able to continue driving safely after making a few adjustments,” she says.

Vehicle adaptions also benefit seniors’ mental health by extending their time on the road. Previous research conducted by the AAA shows that elderly who stopped driving were almost twice as likely to suffer from depression and nearly five times more likely to enter a long-term care facility than those who remained behind the steering wheel.

In the LongROAD study, more than 70% of senior drivers had experienced health conditions that had impacted muscles and bones – arthritis, hip or knee replacement and joint pains – with some deciding to reduce their driving time and others opting to stop driving altogether.

“The installation of certain devices like steering wheel covers can help lessen the impact of arthritis while larger mirrors and assistive devices on seats can help drivers with limited neck mobility,” said Jake Nelson, the AAA’s Director of Traffic Safety.  

“It’s surprising that more seniors are not utilising simple and inexpensive vehicle adaptations when you consider the large number who are dealing with muscle and joint conditions.”

Driving tips for older drivers – and younger ones, too:

  • Always buckle up: Wearing a seatbelt lowers the risk of serious injury in an accident by 60%. When combined with airbags, the risk is lowered by 85%. Plus, not wearing a seatbelt is against the law!
  • Be alert at all times: Avoid distractions, including conversations with passengers, the car radio and or a mobile phone. Research has shown that, regardless of age, a driver talking on the phone is four times more likely to be involved in an accident.
  • Know your limits: Have regular medical check-ups, including vision and hearing tests.
  • Recognise your changing capabilities: arthritis, stress, other conditions and medications can affect reaction times. Driving for extended periods will strain muscles, vision and concentration.
  • Know the road: Avoid driving on unfamiliar roads, at night, in bad weather and during rush hour.
  • A well-maintained car is a safe car: Reduce worry – and risk of an accident – by keeping your car well maintained. That includes tyre safety and regular oil and coolant checks. Make sure that emergency equipment – including a mobile phone - and a first-aid kit are always in the car.
  • Take defensive driving course: Many defensive driving courses are recognised by insurance companies and graduating from one may help you to reduce your monthly insurance premiums. Equally, the course will help you to hone your driving skills.

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