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By Christian M. Hartley
For Senior Voice 

Stay on the road with better driving skills


September 1, 2023 | View PDF

As people age, it becomes more important for them to match their driving habits to their abilities. Safe driving habits ensure everyone’s well-being on the road, not just the driver. While aging does not necessarily mean a decline in driving abilities, certain changes in vision, reaction time and strength may require adjustments. By adopting specific habits, the more experienced drivers can enhance their driving skills and reduce the risk of accidents.

Start with maintenance

Schedule regular health check-ups to monitor your physical and cognitive abilities, as these can directly impact driving performance. Eye examinations and hearing tests can help identify potential issues early and allow for appropriate interventions or adjustments. You might need glasses or hearing aids, sunlight-reactive lenses for your eyeglasses, or maybe even yellow-tinted sunglasses, and not even have noticed it yet. Put them on for the first time, and you might be impressed by a world of difference.

Did you know you can improve your driving skills without even being in your car? Participating in regular physical and mental activities can help maintain overall health and mental faculties. Exercises that improve strength, flexibility and coordination can positively impact driving skills. Talk to a physical therapist or your primary caregiver about exercises that can help. Developing those hand-eye skills makes it easier to react to unexpected situations on the road.

Keep up with traffic laws

Traffic rules change frequently. Over time, traffic laws and regulations change so it is extremely important for all drivers to stay informed about current laws. Did the state make it illegal to occupy the left lane except when passing yet? What about when you are driving slower than the speed limit because of weather? When should you pull over and let traffic pass you? Taking a driving refresher course or participating in driver’s education programs specifically designed for older adults can provide updated information and reinforce safe driving practices. Perhaps providing a record that you took the classes to your insurance company will lower your insurance costs.

Your attention is required

Becoming distracted can worsen a driver’s focus and reaction time, and the distraction can lead to disorientation about where you are. Drivers should minimize distractions by focusing on the road. Avoid using mobile phones and do not eat or groom yourself while behind the wheel. Adjust your music and GPS systems before driving.

Maintain a safe following distance, and remember that changes. Every driver should maintain a safe following distance, allowing plenty of time to react to sudden stops or changes in traffic. As we age, our time to react to something increases so you might need to increase your following distance to compensate. You should never be closer than three seconds behind the car in front of you, but as you notice your reactions taking longer you need to increase that to four or five seconds or whatever you need to be safe.

Learn to use the bells and whistles

Modern vehicles come equipped with safety features designed to enhance safety. Drivers should familiarize themselves with these features such as anti-lock brakes, blind-spot detection, and lane departure warning systems. Some of the fanciest cars even have a self-driving mode that can help a driver stay in their lane. You can also have your car connect to your cell phone and it can dial 9-1-1 immediately for you if you are involved in an accident.

Weather updates

Take weather conditions into account in your driving decision and driving actions. Rain, wind, snow, ice, and unmaintained roads can significantly impact road safety. Adjust your driving habits according to weather conditions such as slowing down and increasing your following distances during poor conditions. If you notice someone tailgating you and making you feel uncomfortable, maybe give some extra grace to them and pull over so that they can pass and not continue to crowd you into driving unsafely.

Mindset matters

Accept limitations. None of us want to admit that we are slower than we used to be, but we are. None of us want others to know that sometimes things are blurrier at night than they used to be, but they are. If certain things make driving unsafe, it may be necessary to explore alternative transportation options such as buses, cabs, ride-sharing services or carpooling.

Managing stress while driving is crucial for maintaining focus and making smart decisions on the road. When you are stressed, it is easier to be distracted or angered. Deep breathing exercises, listening to relaxing music, or taking breaks during long drives can help you stay calm and in control.

Remember that you need to adjust your driving to your current abilities and the road and weather conditions. Drive safe, drive defensively, and arrive alive.

Christian M. Hartley is a 40-year Alaskan resident with over 25 years of public safety and public service experience. He is the City of Houston Fire Chief and also serves on many local and state workgroups, boards and commissions related to safety. He lives in Big Lake with his wife of 19 years and their three teenage sons.


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