Aging Well

Stay Behind the Wheel Longer

Driving skills may decline with age. But don’t assume that getting older brings an automatic end to driving, according to Harvard researchers.

“Age and health conditions aren’t enough to determine if a person is okay to drive. It requires an individual assessment of skills,” says Lissa Kapust, a social worker at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Kapust’s remarks appear in an article in the Harvard Health Letter.

According to the article, there are many age-related factors that can influence driving. The article lists “vision, hearing, coordination, thinking, visuospatial skills, or reaction time.” You can miss seeing a stop sign, or misjudge its distance, or be unable to stop abruptly if circumstances warrant it.

Physical changes can also affect driving ability, the article says. It lists arthritis of the hands (hard to grip a steering wheel or step on the pedal) and neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s. Additionally, the article says, medication side effects and interactions may also be a factor.

But while that may sound bleak, there are ways to cope and even improve driving, according to the Harvard experts. Many hospitals, sheriff’s offices, and other agencies offer driving assessment programs that can evaluate senior drivers and help them overcome weaknesses behind the wheel. Many of these programs take a team approach to evaluating a person’s driving ability. Social workers, occupational therapists, and neuropsychologists look at the person’s driving history, family concerns, overall health, cognitive function, and driving reflexes. Then it’s on to a road test.

The team looks at all of the information and recommends whether the driver needs to hand over his or her car keys, or whether brushing up on certain skills is needed. “We may suggest working with a driving instructor to focus on errors we found in the driving assessment, such as maintaining lane position,” says Kapust.

Some driving programs can also help seniors get up to speed on the latest driving laws in their state and learn about technologies in newer cars, and can even help them fit better in their cars by adjusting the position of the seat, head restraint, steering wheel, and more.

According to the Harvard Health Letter article, both the AARP ( and the American Automobile Association ( offer driver assessment and improvement programs. They may be able to refer you to other programs as well.

For more information, subscribe to the Harvard Health Letter