car covered in ice and snow in the winter

This morning, we, in a small town in Idaho, woke up to nine inches of newly fallen snow. It was a beautiful sight as it covered the ground in shimmering white flakes, but it caused problems on the roadways. The snowplows were out in force, trying to make the roads passable. Meanwhile, my 73-year-old mother was worried about how she would get to her doctor’s appointment at 9 a.m., and I didn’t like the idea of her driving there by herself. Luckily, I had time to drive her there. I’m sure she would have been fine driving on her own—she has decades of experience driving in snowy weather, but as I drove slowly through the snow-covered city roads, past several cars that had slid off the road, I was glad my mother wasn’t trying to travel on her own today. As I waited for her at the doctor’s office, I wondered about how long it might be until my mother is unable to drive anywhere safely on her own. Tackling a snowy road is one thing, but what about when it gets too hard for her to see the road in any weather conditions? What will she do when she can no longer drive safely and must give up driving all together?

That will be a hard thing for my mother to do. For her, as with many older adults, giving up the independence and freedom that comes from having a driver’s license and a car would be like giving up life. For drivers who live in rural areas, with little to no options for public transportation, there are often no alternatives for transportation, and it can be hard to always rely on family members or friends for rides. It’s no wonder that many older adults do all they can to maintain their independence and continue driving as long as physically possible.

During the first week of December each year, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) sponsors Older Driver Safety Awareness Week in order to focus on older drivers and their abilities. The focus isn’t as much on whether or not they should be driving, but on what older adults can do to keep driving safely and maintain their independence for as long as possible, and what families can do to ensure their loved ones are safe on the road and know when to make that difficult decision to stop driving.

The roads are full of older drivers, with more aging Americans staying healthy and fit for longer, which enables them to remain in their own homes for longer and have a driver’s license for longer. Despite their years of experience behind the wheel, these older drivers are often the butt of “bad driver” jokes, but according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, statistics show that older drivers get in fewer crashes, especially fatal crashes, than teenagers and young adults. (It seems driver safety awareness needs to focus strongly on that generation, too!) But there are a few facts about older drivers that are concerning: 1) older drivers injured in a crash have a slower recovery time and often longer lasting effects from the injuries, and 2) drivers over the age of 85 have about the same risk of being involved in a fatal car crash as do teens or young adults. So, older drivers do need to watch out for the affects that aging may have on their driving.

Many older drivers are able to realize their limitations and cut back on certain types of driving as they age, such as avoiding driving at night, driving long distances or driving on roads with a higher speed limit or busy traffic. And with a little assistance and some of the new advances in technology available, older drivers can make modifications to their cars, making it possible to keep driving despite dealing with the effects of aging.

The AOTA provides a long list of modifications that can be made to cars. Here are a few of their suggestions: 

  • Add wide-angle mirrors or a back-up camera, requiring less turning of the head to view the road around you.
  • Attach a ribbon to the seat belt that makes it easier to grip and pull across your body.
  • Use a Handybar, a removable bar that allows you to have something to hold onto as you enter and exit the car.
  • Subscribe to OnStar (using wireless and GPS technology) as a way to call for assistance if you are lost or in an emergency situation.
  • Install a swing out seat as an easy way enter or exit your car.
  • Use a siren detector to alert you of the sound of an approaching ambulance or emergency vehicle.
  • Install tire pressure sensors, traction sensors, foot pedal extensions, etc.

In addition to this list, there are many other advances in technology that can assist older adults with safe driving. Cars can parallel park on their own, alert the driver of an impending collision if the car gets too close to something, and even alert a driver if the car starts to change lanes without the turn signal. For now, many of these features are only available on high-priced vehicles, but they are an option to help older drivers be more aware of their surroundings and maneuver the car safely.

With or without extra assistance or new technology, the driver is ultimately responsible for safety on the road. Drivers must be in control of the car. Most older drivers have an excellent safety record and will be safe drivers for years to come, but they also know their limitations, just as my mother did after the snowstorm this morning. As we focus on Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, let’s remind each other of the importance of safe driving—at any age and in any conditions! Watch out for yourself and for others on the road!