You remember how hard it was when it was time to take the car keys away from Dad.
Here’s an even tougher question: How far away are you from the same fate?
You could be closer than you think.
As you age, your vision and hearing decline, your reflexes become a tad slower, and maintaining flexibility takes more effort. Night driving becomes harder, your peripheral vision isn’t as wide, and glare from oncoming headlights can be blinding, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Some of these changes can start as early as your 40s. During your 50s and 60s, they can happen so gradually that you’re often unaware they’re happening. But they can snowball.
By the time you reach age 70, crash rates start creeping up, according to the Insurance institute for Highway Safety.
Being more aware of these issues now means you can start compensating for them sooner, and stay safer on the road longer.
Your eyes go first
Deteriorating eyesight is among the first noticeable changes. It actually starts in your 40s, and by the time you hit your 50s you struggle to see people, things, and movement outside your direct line of sight, according to the American Optometric Association. It also takes longer to read street or traffic signs, or even recognize familiar landmarks.
“It got to the point where my husband wouldn’t get in the car with me at night,” says Adrienne Wald, 63, professor of nursing at the College of New Rochelle. She lives in New Paltz, N.Y., where many roads are poorly lit, if at all.
“I thought I was fine,” she says. “It’s amazing I didn’t drive off the road.”
You try to deny the obvious, Wald says. It took a couple of bad falls while jogging for her to concede that her vision was deteriorating. An eye exam revealed bad cataracts in both eyes. Wald calls the subsequent surgery miraculous.
“I was blown away,” she says of the resulting improvement in vision and night driving capability. ”It’s mind boggling. Really dramatic.”
By the time you turn 60, your pupils are about a third of the size they were when you were 20. They react more slowly in response to darkness or bright light. The lens is yellower, less flexible, and slightly cloudy.
Your eye muscles are less able to fully rotate, which affects peripheral vision, according to the National Library of Medicine. And, visual acuity—focusing on objects, especially up close—also declines with age.
Driving at night
The need for more light and better contrast as you age means night driving becomes a significant challenge for many drivers. That’s exacerbated if it’s also raining, says Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist and head of The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence.
Advances in the development of headlights and smart headlights are beneficial, she says. There are various iterations of the technology but generally, smart headlights adapt to road conditions, automatically shifting to high beams as needed or swiveling to follow road curves.
“That is something accessible to drivers if they’re getting a new car; it’s something I’d definitely suggest drivers check out and be aware of as something that could help.”
But it’s not just vision problems that affect driving. Sometimes, changes are more subtle.
Mute the multitasking
Studies show your reaction time, strength, coordination, and concentration gradually diminish with age. Stamina may decrease and you may find you tire more easily on a long drive, or in conditions which require extra concentration, like heavy traffic or bad weather.
Multitasking—even just changing the radio station—also becomes harder.
As you start noticing these changes, it’s particularly important to be really focused on the road and concentrate on what you’re doing, says Olshevski.
Mary Ellen Walsh, 53, from Syosset, N.Y., couldn’t agree more. “I make sure I have everything set before I go to minimize distractions,” she says.
As a mother of three and an academic tutor, she drives frequently, in all kinds of weather, like it or not.
“I set my GPS, have my water bottle, I’m hypervigilant and can’t be spur of the moment,” she says. “I need to know exactly where I’m going and plan ahead.”
Exercise to drive longer
Flexibility and range of motion, attributes you need to safely change lanes, back up, and get in and out of the car, also start becoming issues as you get older.
Improving your range of motion can be as a simple as a 15- to 20-minute series of daily exercises, says Olshevski.
Her group did a study with the MIT Age Lab on exercise for older drivers, including those in the 60-74 age group. Participants did a range of motion and flexibility exercises—back stretches and heel drops, chest and shoulder expansion, and shoulder stretches, every day for 8 to 10 weeks.
Most participants reported greater ease in turning their heads to see blind spots when changing lanes or backing up. They were also able to rotate their bodies further to scan the driving environment while making right-hand turns.
And an unexpected benefit was being able to get into their cars more quickly. To some of the experts involved, this result really demonstrated increased overall flexibility.
“This was really promising to us because we thought wow, if you do some targeted exercises, it can help with that,” says Olshevski.
More new cars come equipped with features that can increase safety on the road at any age and are especially helpful for anyone experiencing age-related decline in driving skills.
Blind spot warning that provides extra assurance when you’re changing lanes is one of those technologies, as are back-up cameras, now built into all new cars.
“They don’t replace the need to be flexible and have a good range of motion, but they can help,” says Olshevski.
Crash avoidance technology is becoming more advanced and more readily available too. This helps with the often unnoticed decline in reaction time.
Go to class
However, even with all of the bells and whistles, as a driver you must still factor in physical and cognitive changes, and compensate by modifying your driving habits: slowing down, leaving more space between the other vehicles, minimizing distractions.
Improved road safety starts with your own wellness, such as regular physical and vision checkups, and ensuring that any medications you take don’t have side effects that affect your driving, says Olshevski.
She recommends that everyone over 50 take defensive driving classes every few years, to brush up on skills.
“Be tuned in to what changes you’re experiencing and be active in seeking out ways to help compensate for that, such as appropriate exercise,” she says,
At the same time, learn about new vehicle technology so if you’re shopping for a car, you can look for one that has it.
Staying safer on the road as you age doesn’t take all that much extra effort. But it could mean the difference between hanging on to, or hanging up the car keys.