behind-the-wheel
Driving

Staying Safe on the Road

Driving a car is one of the most ordinary, yet one of the riskiest, activities we engage in every day. According to the National Safety Council, 38,800 people died in car accidents in 2019, and millions more are injured each year. It’s one of the most serious public-health issues we face.

Many things can make driving risky. Drinking or using drugs can be especially dangerous. Speeding, not paying full attention to the road, and driving while tired all increase your chances of a crash.

“Because we’re so phone driven, the tendency is when somebody calls us or texts us, we want to respond immediately,” says Dr. Bruce Simons-Morton of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). To drive safely, we have to overcome that powerful impulse, he explains. But in just five seconds, you travel the entire length of a football field at 55 miles per hour.

Distraction isn’t limited to phones. It’s anything that takes attention away from driving the car. Eating, playing with the radio, and adjusting your navigation system all distract from safe driving.

“Reaching for objects is also a big problem,” says Simons-Morton. You may take your eyes off the road when you try to grab your sunglasses or something in the seat next to you.

Drivers age 16 to 19 are responsible for most crashes. But they aren’t the only group at greater risk of accidents. As people age, physical and mental changes can make driving more hazardous.

fender-bender

“There’s a number of changes that happen in our vision as we grow older,” says Dr. Cynthia Owsley, who studies the impact of aging on vision at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Eye diseases, such as glaucoma, naturally get worse. Older adults are also more likely to have certain eye conditions that affect sight, like cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

Problems distinguishing an object from its background, called contrast sensitivity, are also common. “Think of looking through a dirty windshield: Everything looks kind of washed out,” Owsley says. Additionally, vision problems can also affect the ability to see to the side, or peripheral vision. This can make it harder to see cars in adjacent lanes.

For older adults, changes in the brain can make driving riskier, too. Owsley and others have shown that cognitive decline—problems with memory and other brain functions—increases the likelihood of a car crash. Changes in physical ability, such as strength and reflexes, can also make driving more dangerous as you age.

But getting older doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop driving.

“I think the public worries about older drivers, but actually most older drivers are quite safe,” Owsley says. It’s older drivers with visual and cognitive impairments who are at greatest risk.

If you’re concerned about an older person’s driving, it’s important to start a conversation with them. Experts advise watching for the signs that driving is getting unsafe, like getting lost on familiar routes, experiencing a near-miss, or receiving a traffic ticket.

You can contact a driving assessment clinic as well to see if they really do have a driving problem. These clinics can provide a professional evaluation of a person’s driving ability. If driving is no longer safe, work with the older adult to develop a plan for getting around without a car.

Some common-sense tips to stay safe on the road:

Always keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.

Don’t multi-task, like talking or texting, eating and drinking, or fiddling with the stereo, entertainment, or navigation system.

Wear your safety belt.

Drive at the speed limit. It’s unsafe to drive too fast or too slowly.

Obey all traffic signs.

Keep enough distance between you and the car in front of you to avoid a crash.

Don’t drink and drive.

When you take a new medicine, ask your doctor or pharmacist about side effects. Some can affect your driving.

If you have glasses or contact lenses, make sure you have a current prescription and wear them while driving.

Don’t wear sunglasses or tinted lenses at night.

For more information from the NIH on older drivers, click here.

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