Research shows that we tend to drive better as we age…. up to a certain point.

You often hear about it–a senior driver mistakenly hits the gas pedal instead of the brake.  The tragic 2003 Santa Monica farmer’s market accident left 10 people dead and 63 injured after an 86 year old man accidently accelerated instead of braking. He unfortunately had previous accidents and there were reports that people had witnessed unsafe driving by him.

The reality is that most older adult drivers are safe drivers!  As one ages, older adults know that their reactions are slowed, their eyesight is less acute in the dark, so they accommodate by not driving at night and slowing their speeds.

Some older drivers may be aware of their failing ability, but still be reluctant to give up driving completely. For them, it’s another humiliating reminder of their growing inability to take care of themselves and manage the tasks of daily life.  Just imagine having to give up your license!  How do you get to the store, pharmacy, doctor, hairdresser or church?  So, it is understandable that no one wants to give up their driving before they have to. 

But how do we know when the time has come?  How do you know when a parent, grandparent or senior loved one is no longer safe behind the wheel?

There are the obvious physical signs–decreased vision, impaired hearing, slowed motor reflexes, memory problems.  There are red flags behind the wheel–sudden lane changes, drifting into other lanes, braking or accelerating suddenly without reason, frequent “close calls”, dents and scrapes on the car, or increased traffic tickets or “warnings” by law enforcement officers. 

The important thing is to remember that aging does not automatically equal total loss of driving ability.  It is not about age, but function.  At any age, someone may have a physical or cognitive issue that makes him or her a medically-at-risk driver. 

A research program, ROADI (Research for the Older Driver Initiative), in the ECU Department of Occupational Therapy focuses on older drivers retaining their freedom and independence while keeping them safe on the road.  ROADI has several research projects that are investigating the most effective and efficient methods of driving evaluation and intervention.  The program includes state of the art evaluation tools such as an interactive driving simulator that can challenge any type of driver in the safety of the clinic, a “Vision Coach” that evaluates visual field and processing speed, as well other tools to measure an individual’s cognitive, physical, sensory, and perceptual skills.  The ROADI team is active in several studies and welcome older adults to come get a free assessment of their driving knowledge and skills!

Dr. Anne Dickerson
Project Director and Occupational Therapy Professor