Driving allows older people to stay independent and socially connected. Staying safe is important to all drivers. However, as we age, driving can come with its own challenges that may impact confidence or capacity to drive safely.
Myths about older drivers
Myth: Older drivers aren’t safe.
Fact: Older drivers are as safe as other age groups. Because of their greater years of driving experience, older drivers are less likely to be in an accident.
Myth: Older drivers have to pass a driving test to keep their licence.
Fact: Victorian drivers do not need to pass a licence test when they reach a certain age. VicRoads recognises that every person is different and for some people, changes that could affect their driving ability can start to develop well before their seventies. For others, problems may not occur until their eighties, or later. Drivers, as well as their treating health professionals, family and friends are expected to report chronic health conditions that could have an impact on fitness to drive to VicRoads.
How can ageing affect driving?
Driving requires coordination; quick reaction time; an awareness of what is going on around you; and the capacity to deal with changing traffic and road conditions. Older drivers are more likely to have a medical condition that reduces their ability to drive safely. Consequently, older people are at more risk than younger people of dying in an accident, and medications may also increase the risk of a crash. It takes an older driver longer to respond to a situation than a younger driver. Older drivers are more likely to be involved in collisions at intersections and on multi-lane roads where they fail to select a safe gap in the traffic.
However, being an older driver also has positive effects on driving. Older drivers are more likely to self-regulate, avoiding times or conditions in which they feel uncomfortable, driving shorter distances and restricting their driving to times and situations in which they feel safe. Older drivers also tend to be cautious and responsible, obey the law, and are rarely involved in drink driving or speeding incidents.
What physical changes and health issues impact older drivers?
Physical changes and health issues that impact older drivers include:
- decreased muscle strength and co-ordination – where it becomes more difficult to operate car controls, or to move the head from side to side and to look left and right.
- reduced vision – experiencing greater impact from glare from sunlight or approaching headlights, or vision impairment due to macular degeneration or cataracts.
- reduced hearing – have difficulty hearing high tones, sirens or horns.
- joint pain from arthritis – Sometimes the ways people adapt to limiting and/or painful conditions makes their driving less safe. This may include failing to look over your shoulder before leaving a parking spot or when changing lanes.
- serious heart problems and dizziness.
- orientation and memory issues, often related to dementia
- neurological conditions – especially Parkinson’s Disease and strokes.
Older drivers and dementia
An early diagnosis of dementia gives an older person, and their family, time to plan. Dementia takes time to develop and to make driving unsafe; it may not mean having to stop driving immediately. People living with dementia should have their driving abilities assessed regularly so they can stay independent for as long as possible.
When it’s time to retire
Older drivers are often reluctant to give up driving, despite experiencing a decline in capacity due to health issues, increased difficulty or decreasing confidence when driving. Often a close relative or friend will be concerned about the safety of an older driver and wish to discuss it with them. This can be confronting for the older driver, so the subject should be approached sensitively and over many conversations.
Planning for retirement
Whether you are retiring from driving yourself, or helping someone else to do so, you should consider alternative transport options early. Older drivers should become familiar with other transport options, including taxis and ride-share options, public transport and community transport services, and lifts from family and friends. When the time comes to retire from driving, an older driver should feel confident they can still get to where they want and need to go. Accessing different forms of transport may even open up opportunities to visit new places and take up new activities.
It is a good idea to discuss safe driving and alternative transport options with family, friends and health professionals. A GP can assist with a driving assessment to check driver capacity. They can make recommendations to VicRoads about whether someone can continue to drive, and what – if any – conditions may need to be in place to ensure they can continue to drive safely.
Dr Jane Fyfield MBBS, Dip Ger. Med., Grad Dip HA, MPH
Gerontologist, Australian Association of Gerontology, AAG (Vic) Executive Committee
Dr Rajna Ogrin BSc, BPod(Hons), PhD
Senior Research Fellow, Bolton Clarke Research Institute,
Australian Association of Gerontology, AAG (Vic) member