By Chuck Mai, AAA
“What a drag it is getting old.” At least, that’s what Mick Jagger sang back in 1966, when he was 23. These days, as a “golden oldie” himself, Mick might be changing his tune.
Time catches up with everyone, even rock stars, but getting older doesn’t have to be a drag. One of the most important things to know is how age affects driving.
Although it might seem easy and natural, driving is actually a complex, fast-paced activity. It involves sensing information about traffic, road conditions, signals, markings, and the car’s behavior, deciding what to do based on that information, and then acting, all in rapid-fire succession.
A typical driver makes 20 decisions per mile, with less than half a second to act to avoid a collision.
Age affects all three steps in the process: sensing, deciding, and acting.
Sensing. We receive 85 percent of the information necessary to drive through our eyes. But typically our eyes begin to grow worse at age 40 or 50 and decline progressively in later years, even with corrective lenses.
Our ability to clearly distinguish details lessens and we have trouble changing focus quickly between near objects such as the instrument panel and those at a distance such as traffic signs.
The field of vision typically narrows with age, increasing the possibility of a side collision at an intersection. Older drivers are also bothered more by glare and take longer to recover from it. The enormous number of big pickup trucks, vans and sport-utility vehicles on the road today in Oklahoma make night driving particularly difficult for older people. These vehicles ride high, so their lights shine directly into the eyes of a driver in an oncoming passenger car. This can temporarily blind the person behind the wheel, no matter what their age.
Deciding. Once we take in information through our senses, we have to process it and make a decision to avoid a collision. Although older drivers process information and react more slowly than younger people, experience, mature judgment, and good driving habits usually compensate for these diminished skills.
As a sign of continued good judgment, most older drivers recognize and avoid situations where their limitations put them at risk. They drive less after dark, during rush hour, or in bad weather, and they may avoid difficult roads, left turns or certain intersections.
Acting. Making good decisions is one thing. Carrying them out is quite another. Few older drivers can perform fast-paced motor activities as well as younger drivers.
Weaker muscles, reduced flexibility, and limited range of motion restrict their ability to grip and turn the steering wheel, press the accelerator or brake, or reach to open doors and windows.
What’s more, 50 percent of the middle-aged population and 80 percent of people in their 70s suffer from arthritis, which makes turning, flexing and twisting painful.
Concerned about your or a loved one’s driving skills? The remedy may be as simple as an eye exam, a visit to the doctor, a regular exercise program, a driver refresher class (AAA Oklahoma calls theirs a Motor Vehicle Crash Prevention course), or a more appropriate vehicle. Also, a good free resource open to anyone with a computer is SeniorDriving.AAA.com. T0ns of tools and advice.