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Tips for staying safe on the road for older people

17th July 2015

This news article is from Handicare UK. Articles that appear on this website are for information purposes only.

While older motorists have a wealth of experience, confidence and tolerance, their senses, reaction time and judgement of speed and distance may not be as sharp as it once was. Therefore, there may come a time when driving is no longer safe, which can be a frightening thought to those who rely on driving to maintain a full and independent life.

However, in order to help those hoping to remain behind the wheel for as long as possible, we’ve spoken to a variety of driving safety experts, who have provided us with their most valuable advice.

Take advantage of help

For many older drivers, who may have been on the road since their teenage years, it can be easy to assume that there is nothing more to learn. While this is not usually the case, it can make receiving advice very difficult, but Managing Director of the online community RoadDriver gives his words of encouragement below.

“One of the most difficult things for any driver to recognise, let alone an older person, is to accept that they might not be as competent a driver as they once were. As we age, none of us are as agile as we once were. We must learn to accept help and advice and be prepared to adjust our driving habits to reduce the effect ageing can have on our ability to stay safe while driving.” - Charles Dunn, RoadDriver

There are numerous ways of getting guidance, which you can find more about in the rest of this article, but the Head of Safety Science at TRL recommends the below.

“From age 70 onwards, drivers in the UK have to re-apply for their licence every three years. There’s no medical check required - you simply need to certify that you are still fit to drive. If you are uncertain about your fitness to drive, you can contact one of the seventeen Mobility Centres in the UK, who can provide you with friendly and professional assessment and advice.” – Britta Lang, Head of Safety Science, TRL

Focus on your overall health

You may consider driving to be an activity which doesn’t require much physical ability, but general well-being can improve your skills on the road significantly. Broadcaster Valerie Singleton OBE spearheads Still Safe to Drive, which is GEMs awareness resource for senior motorists, and throughout this article she offers a few useful tips to help you stay as safe as possible for as long as possible. Her first tip is as follows:

“Get fit, be fit. Do exercise for 15 to 20 minutes each day. Also, take time to be aware of any medication you may be on. Can it affect your ability to focus and concentrate? If in doubt, ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.” – Valerie Singleton OBE

“Always check with the doctor: The likelihood of having to take medication increases with age. If you have been prescribed any medicine it is important to ask your doctor about the side-effects and any potential impact on driving.” – Britta Lang

Regular eye tests

The Older Drivers Forum is about keeping mature motorists on the road safely for longer, and is made up of experts in road safety from across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, including representatives from the emergency services to charities, local authorities and business. They offer valuable resources and advice for older drivers, such as the tip below.

“We recommend having regular eyesight checks, particularly a field of vision check. You may be able to read a number plate at 20m but your peripheral vision may be reducing without you realising.” – Rob Heard, Chair of the Older Drivers Forum

“Make sure that you have your glasses on or contacts in when you set off on a journey and keep your car’s windshield clean. If you feel that you are struggling with driving at night, be extra cautious and try to stick to well-lit routes.” - TRL

Take a driving assessment

Letting an outsider assess your driving can provide comforting reassurance, as not only can they highlight what you do well, but you can also be given some pointers on ways to improve. Many are available for free, with our experts confirming that they are a superb way to polish up on your driving.

“Organise a 'driver MOT’ where your driving skills are assessed. After all, it’s what a car gets every year, so why not the driver from time to time as well? The assessment offers the opportunity to recognise any possible shortcomings and to implement a strategy to banish those risky habits.” – Valerie Singleton OBE

“Check with your Local Authority, as some nowadays offer assessment and training schemes that can provide a real boost to your confidence. These schemes are not formal assessments of fitness to drive, so there is no fear that you may lose your licence; at the same time you get an independent, second opinion on your driving.” –Britta Lang

“These can help with advice and build confidence, so go on, give it a go!” – Rob Heard

Refresh your knowledge

Rules of the road can change over time, so it’s always best practice to keep up-to-date with the latest guidelines. Whether you regularly check the Highway Code or test your knowledge of road signs, it will make sure that you’re always prepared for what you may find when driving.

“Consider completing a self-assessment tool; an anonymous online questionnaire and feedback tool that can provide you with useful feedback and tips on all aspects related to safe driving. Whilst self-assessment tools are still somewhat new in the UK, a very good one is available free of charge by the University of Michigan.” – Britta Lang

Attend shows for information

The Mobility Roadshow is an event which showcases the best in mobility innovation, and this year in particular is focused on the needs of older drivers. It provides a wonderful opportunity to discover ways to improve or update your vehicle, as well as a wealth of information to improve the lifestyle of people such as wheelchair and stairlift users.

“There are always a wide range of vehicles to test drive and try out – vital for older people to make sure that they are comfortable in the driving position and that all the controls are within easy reach and light enough to use. For those who are considering alternatives to driving, mobility scooters and other products are also available.” - Mobility Roadshow

Adapt your vehicle

More often than not, your car will come as standard, but there are numerous ways that you can modify a vehicle to suit your specific needs. Whether this is by adding wing mirror adapters or an elevated driving seat, more can be done to ensure that you are comfortable driving your current car.

“Check your car: is it the most suitable for your needs? Could you modify it, adapt it or possibly trade it in for something that’s more appropriate? Have a think about the car you drive. Can you get in and out easily? Can you read the speedometer clearly? Do your lights illuminate a dark road effectively? Is the steering wheel thick enough for a good grip? Having an appropriate vehicle is really important if you want to stay as safe as possible for as long as possible.” - Valerie Singleton OBE

“There are many – often simple – products that can help older drivers overcome the effect of pain and loss of strength. Items such as extra mirrors, easy release adaptations to the parking brake or wide top inserts for ignition keys can take a lot of the strain, discomfort and fiddle of our driving. Being comfortable and pain free at the wheel is essential to safe driving.” – Mobility Roadshow

Plan your journeys

Panic can often set in if you are driving on roads that you are unfamiliar with, but planning can help prevent this. Use online tools such as the AA route planner, or ask someone who knows the way to accompany you if possible. Here are further tips from our experts to reduce stress when driving.

“Avoid using the roads at really busy times. Driving requires a lot of concentration, and elderly drivers are more susceptible to the dangers of fatigue. So, build in plenty of breaks on journeys. Get familiar with a satnav, but make sure you programme it before you set out.”

“You could think about driving only in full daylight when your vision will be at its best. Perhaps be more willing to postpone those journeys where previously you may not have thought twice. Stay at home or use other modes of transport when it’s wet, icy, snowy or foggy.” – Valerie Singleton OBE

“Build in rest breaks: Break up long journeys with regular rest breaks every 1-2 hours. Get out of the car and stretch, drink plenty of water and don’t drive when tired. Also, choosing travel times when traffic is light can help to reduce the stress of a journey. Planning the trip before you set off allows you to focus on your driving, rather than finding your way.” – Britta Lang

Learn from your mistakes

There may be a time when you have a bad experience while driving, but it’s important that you take note of these, and use them to improve your skills for the future.

“Don’t pretend they’re not happening. Good drivers reflect on their actions and learn from them. They think about situations where there was a bit more risk than there needed to be, and they ask what they could do differently to make it less likely to happen again.” – Valerie Singleton OBE

Keep driving

It’s important to drive regularly, as this will ensure that nothing is forgotten, and will prevent any worries from getting out of hand.

“Practice keeps your skills fresh, and confidence grows with routine. Statistics show that those who drive more, have fewer crashes. And if you haven’t driven for a while and feel apprehensive about it, why not take a few refresher lessons with a driving instructor to get you back in the saddle? Many driving schools nowadays provide such lessons, which are also a great way to stay up to date with highway regulations, traffic signs and symbols.” – Britta Lang

A spokesman from RAC motoring service, Simon Williams, also said: “Having the freedom to get behind the wheel is essential for maintaining mobility, independence and quality of life for many older people, particularly in rural areas where public transport is less likely to be available as an alternative. As a result, we believe that measures to prevent older motorists from driving should be discouraged unless there are compelling reasons why it’s not safe for them to do so.

“Driving is a skill that needs to be practised and adapted as the roads and in-car technology change through a motorist’s lifetime. The RAC supports measures to ensure motorists of all ages continue to develop and refresh their driving skills from the first time they pick up their car keys to the last time they put them down.”

When is it time to give up?

There may come a time when it is advisable for an older person to stop driving, but Road Safety Wales has some useful information for those having to make the tough decision.

“Ultimately, age related conditions and a deterioration in health and fitness can eventually mean that there is a point when an individual must give up driving. Older drivers may notice their reactions becoming slower or they may start to feel increasingly anxious when on the road, then it may be time to choose to stop driving.”

- Discuss your health conditions and fitness to drive during consultations with your GP.

- Some prescription or over-the-counter medicines can make you unfit to drive.  If you’re taking them and you’re not sure if you should drive, talk to your doctor, pharmacist or healthcare professional.

- Once over 70, drivers have to reapply for their licence every three years. There is no test or medical, but you do have to make a medical declaration that may lead to DVLA making further investigations.

- If you or your family are concerned about your driving, think positively about the alternatives to owning and running your car. No insurance, road tax, maintenance or fuel costs to pay – Road Safety Wales

Useful resources

There’s a whole host of information available across various mediums, such as websites online, mail-able booklets, events run by local authorities, and much, much more. One of our favourite sources for information is Flourish, which offers both a comprehensive manual, and a driver assessment tool.

‘Flourish brings together a range of services to support mature drivers, keeping them safer for longer. Through literature and events we are connecting these drivers with advice on issues such as physical mobility, eyesight, vehicle control and alternative transport options, helping them make the best choices for their freedom and health.’ – Road Safety Analysis

Image Credit: Mobility Roadshow, marc falardeau, Still Safe to Drive, Flourish, Mobility Roadshow, Mobility Roadshow, Tony Austin, Road Safety Wales, frankieleon (Flickr.com)

This content was written by Emily Bray. Please feel free to visit my Google + profile to read more stories.