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4 Signs That Your Driving Skills Are Declining

Thursday June 28, 2012

Even subtle declines in driving abilities should prompt you to rethink your approach behind the wheel
Gina Roberts-Grey

nextavenue.org - Is driving at night becoming more of a challenge? Have you had near misses while making left turns, or discovered that you're no longer keeping up with the speed limit?

As we get older, the changes that occur in our eyes, ears, backs and brains can make driving trickier. “There is no set age at which things like decreased hearing and vision or stiffness occur,” says Marion Somers, Ph.D., a geriatric care manager and the author of Elder Care Made Easier. “They can come at any age, so drivers must remain very aware of the changes to their bodies. Everyone is different. One person may begin to have reflex or vision issues at 45 or 50 while another may not experience this until age 72.”

If you've encountered any of the following situations on the road, it may be time to change your approach behind the wheel:

(MORE: Should You Be Driving?)

1. Left Turns Are Harder to Manage

According to U.S. Department of Transportation research, the average motorist could drive a billion miles before getting into an accident stemming from a right-hand turn, which only requires a driver to track potential hazards in one direction.

Left turns are another story, demanding that the driver pay attention to vehicles, pedestrians, animals and other potential dangers from at least two directions. Failure to do so could result in getting “T-boned” — hit in the middle of your car by a vehicle coming from the right or left. But arthritis pain or joint stiffness can negatively affect your ability to quickly look left, right and then left again when you’re preparing to make a turn.

How to stay safe: If you experience arthritis or stiff joints, consider making “the Michigan Left” your own rule of the road. On many Michigan state roads, motorists cannot make left turns; instead, they must make a legal U-turn at a designated spot. The change has led to a nearly 60 percent reduction of left-turn accidents in those areas. Reconsider your usual routes to take left turns out of the mix, or choose to limit your left turns to intersections with stoplights.

2. Your Night Vision Is Declining

Many of us find it increasingly challenging to navigate dimly lit roads or battle the glare of oncoming headlights while driving at night or in the early morning. The “gray zone” between dark pavement and the light on the horizon makes it tough for older eyes to judge distances or make out cars, obstacles or traffic signals.

“Natural aging processes affect vision and make it more difficult to focus,” says Linda Hsueh, an ophthalmologist at Summit Medical Group in Knoxville, Tenn. “The lens of the eye also slowly hardens and yellows over the years, which leads to decreased vision and impaired perception of depth” when the light is low.

(MORE: Taking Away an Older Driver's Keys)

How to stay safe: If you can’t avoid driving in the dark or dusk, ask your ophthalmologist about anti-reflective lenses, which may make it easier to adjust to sudden changes in light caused by the headlights of approaching or passing cars.

3. You're Less Comfortable at High Speed

If you once thought of the speed limit as merely a suggested starting point, but now find just maintaining it to be recklessly fast, you could be at higher risk of getting into an accident. Drivers who are less confident tend to drive slower, believing it's safer. But in the absence of risky weather conditions like ice or rain, traveling under the speed limit can actually put you at higher risk of an accident, says Mardy Chizek, R.N., president of Charism Elder Living Services in Westmont, Ill.

Most drivers don’t expect other cars to be traveling well below the speed limit, so they may come up on your back bumper too quickly to be able to stop. Other drivers may become frustrated following a slow vehicle, which leads to tailgating, dangerous cutoffs or even road rage, all of which can further shake your confidence.

How to stay safe: If you only feel comfortable driving slower than the rest of the traffic stream, Chizek advises that you stay in the right lane or avoid highways during rush hour.

4. You Trip Up When Yielding the Right of Way

This is the most common mistake made by older drivers, according to Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. The group's 2007 study of nonfatal crashes at intersections found that senior citizens had more failure-to-yield crashes than younger motorists. “Older drivers were more likely to see another vehicle or a pedestrian, but they misjudged whether there was time to proceed,” Rader says.

(MORE: Overcoming the Fear of Driving, One Lesson at a Time)

Stiff joints are often to blame for these accidents. “A limited range of motion,” Somers says, “may prevent you from turning to look at your blind spot when you’re getting ready to merge into traffic or change lanes.”

A natural decline in peripheral vision is another contributing factor. And for some drivers, prescription medications can impair reaction time. Antihistamines, anti-depressants and pain pills can make you groggy or diminish your ability to react quickly when, say, a light changes or you approach a stop sign. Somers advises checking the warning labels on all medications; make sure your doctor and pharmacist know everything you’re taking, even vitamins and supplements, to uncover possible interactions that could impair your driving ability.

How to stay safe: Adding a fish-eye mirror to the corner of your car’s side mirrors, Somers says, “can help increase your ability to see the traffic around you, especially if your peripheral vision is keeping you from seeing cars in your blind spot.”

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