Ask an expert: 5 essential tips to keep older drivers safe on the road

Chris Kissell

older driver safetyTens of millions of older drivers take to the nation's roadways each day, raising concerns about their safety.

In 2012, there were nearly 36 million drivers age 65 or older in the United States, according to the most recent statistics from the Federal Highway Administration.

Many of these seniors have been behind the wheel for decades, leading to a false sense of driving security, even in the face of physical and cognitive decline.

Reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say the risk of accidents increases significantly as drivers age, with an average of 500 older adults injured every day in U.S. crashes.

Following are five things seniors can do to lower their risk of an accident.

1. Stay fit and healthy.

Getting older does not always erode one's driving skills, says Julie Lee, vice president and national director of the AARP Driver Safety program.

Some especially fit drivers can drive to age 100, she says. To remain a sharp driver, it's important to exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet.

Seniors also should be aware of how certain medications may affect their ability to drive, Solomon says. AAA says the following drugs may impair driving ability:

  • Narcotic pain pills
  • Sleep medicines
  • Antihistamines
  • Cough medicines
  • Decongestants
  • Some antidepressants
  • Tranquilizers

Seniors should ask their doctors about possible driving safety issues associated with any medications they're taking.

Care of the eyes is also important, since driving is largely based on visual cues, says James Solomon, defensive driving courses program development and training director at the National Safety Council

He recommends older drivers have their eyes checked regularly, and make sure they wear sunglasses that are properly fitted to reduce glare.

He also urges seniors to have annual auditory exams to check for hearing problems.

Seniors can also experience diminished peripheral vision and a decreased ability to adjust to changes in light, which makes night driving increasingly difficult.

Other difficulties seniors may face include:

  • Difficulty moving the neck to check the side view mirrors and the blind spots.
  • Challenges when gripping the steering wheel due to spinal curvature.
  • Problems moving the foot to the accelerator due to joint disease and pain.

2. Take a driver safety course.

Many insurance companies offer premium discounts to seniors who take courses that sharpen their driving skills.

As of November 2013, 34 states and Washington, D.C., require insurance companies to offer premium discounts to people who take driver safety courses, according to AARP.

Such courses teach older drivers about the most common causes of senior crashes and help them learn to use the latest safety technologies, such as lane-departure warning systems.

AAA's RoadWise Review and AARP's Smart Driver are examples of such courses, which generally can be taken either in a classroom setting or online.

Before signing up with a course, consult your insurance agent to find out what type of discount it offers.

3. Buy cars with the latest safety technologies.

Many new cars are equipped with improved safety technologies that can prevent crashes or protect drivers and passengers when accidents occur. Such technologies include:

  • Electronic stability control, which keeps vehicles from skidding sideways or losing control.
  • Daytime running lights, which are headlights that remain on both day and night. These lights make it easier for other drivers to see your vehicle, which helps prevent head-on and front-corner collisions.
  • Side air bags, which help protect a driver's torso during a collision.

Some technologies may offer especially important protections for seniors. For example, side air bags reduce deaths in nearside impacts by 45 percent for front seat occupants ages 70 and older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Highway Loss Data Institute.

4. Install adaptive equipment in your car.

Older drivers can install equipment in their cars that helps them drive more safely.

Examples of such technology include:

  • Swivel seats and support handles that help drivers get into and out of cars.
  • Hand controls that allow you to brake or accelerate.
  • Large-size print for dashboard gauges.
  • Seat cushions and adjusters that raise the driver higher.

Such changes are not necessarily expensive. For example, a seat-back cushion that improves visibility costs $50, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More complex equipment, such as hand-held controls, often costs less than $1,000.

A driver rehabilitation specialist can help you determine the equipment you need and refer you to programs that may help pay for the changes.

5. Understand your limitations.

Driving skills may erode over time, so it's important to take such limitations into account when driving.

Some simple behavioral changes can reduce the risk of crashing. For example, seniors should try to limit their time behind the wheel to periods when conditions are optimal, such as during daylight hours and in dry weather.

It's also important to avoid driving after drinking alcohol, or when you haven't had enough sleep.

Also, seek the help of experts who can help you to better understand how aging affects your driving.

Seniors often drive in cars that aren't properly fitted to them, Lee says.

"They aren't sitting far enough from the steering wheel, the mirrors are not adjusted properly," she says.

CarFit -- an educational program co-sponsored by AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association -- offers older adults the opportunity to meet with an occupational therapist who can make proper adjustments in the driving environment.

See how much you could save today on your car insurance. Get your free auto insurance quotes today!