Aging and Driving

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Dr. Dale Atkins

Senior Safety /

Elderly driver 2164765b
“I quit driving the day I realized I couldn’t see well enough to keep from hitting someone."


Do you remember having the chance to drive around in a toy car when you were a child? What excitement! From their earliest years, most children are fascinated by sitting behind the wheel of a car and imagining themselves driving. The excitement expands when we finally get our first driver’s license and the keys to the car! My dad owned a Chevrolet dealership in New Jersey. I have wonderful memories of sitting in the new cars when I was a little girl and imagining what it would be like when I was finally old enough to drive. When I got my driver’s license at 17, I was thrilled to borrow the car for my first solo drive—all the way over to my best friend’s house—all by myself!

For many of us, driving has always meant some degree of freedom and independence.  It is a big deal. So as we think about getting older and coming to the time when it is no longer wise for us to drive can be upsetting.

There are natural fears that go through everyone’s mind:

  • Will I be isolated and alone all the time?
  • How will I get to my friend’s house, to a restaurant, or to a doctor’s appointment?  
  • What will I do in an emergency?
  • Maybe I’ll feel useless, unable to do my volunteer work.
  • What about my connection with my temple or church?
  • Will I get depressed?
  • How can I maintain my sense of self as an independent, engaged citizen?

All these fears and others are reasonable. It’s important that we pay attention to these thoughts—perhaps even write them down.

We can create a roadway to follow as we age that will help us remain vital, happy, engaged, and safe. Acknowledging what our fears are is an important aspect of our journey. If we know what thoughts are running through our mind, we can share them with trusted family members, friends, and advisors and see if and how we can address them. And we need to remember that Age isn’t the only factor that leads us to stop driving...

There are factors that can make it unsafe for a person to drive that can occur at any age. For example: changes in vision.

Having good eyesight is, of course, critical for safe driving. People can develop eye problems at any age, which makes regular eye exams important for us all. But it is particularly important as we get older, because changes in vision can make it difficult for us to see exactly where we are and what is in front of us or around us.

Eye Conditions that interfere with safe driving:

Macular degeneration: (where we see clearly around the edges of what we are viewing, but the area right in the middle looks blurry and may even appear black.) With macular degeneration it becomes increasingly difficult to tell what is right in front of the car—it could be a small car or a person in the cross walk.

Glaucoma: (this refers to a group of eye conditions that results in optic nerve damage, which may cause loss of vision. Usually, VERY high pressure inside our eye causes this damage. 

Night vision problems: Another problem that may begin as we age is difficult with night vision. If it were daytime, such people would know exactly what cars were near them and which lights represented traffic signals. However, with poor night vision the world is a mish mash, and it is impossible to drive safely Some people think by driving slowly, they are dealing well with night vision problems but in fact, even if we drive slowly, we still don’t see the traffic lights or the lane markers or curbsides.

Why Emphasize Eye Problems?

It’s important for us to pay close attention to any changes in our eyesight because early detection of problems can often lead to treatment that will extend our sight. No one else can see what we see when we look through our eyes. Our best friends have no idea if we see them in a fuzzy blur or clearly. So we need to pay close attention to our vision, and we need to get regular eye exams.

Other factors that affect driving have to do with mobility, memory, distractibility, and stress. (Honestly, as I write this, I wonder if there is ANYTHING that is NOT made worse by stress!)

When we can’t turn our neck to see what’s happening around us, we can’t use our arm, or leg because it is stiff or weak, we simply cannot drive safely. We may think we are being very brave, even heroic, for driving ourselves around when we are not in great physical shape, but, in fact, if we HONESTLY assess ourselves, we may actually be putting ourselves and everyone around us in serious danger. I think my point is obvious. If someone we love dearly were putting him or herself in danger by driving, we would want to do everything possible to intervene—for their safety—and because we love them.We don’t want them to injure or kill themselves or have to live the rest of their life with the knowledge that they injured or killed someone else.

As one elderly friend, told me, “I quit driving the day I realized I couldn’t see well enough to keep from hitting someone. I knew I could never live with myself if I hurt someone, so I gave up my keys.” My friend shared with his friends what he had done and why. His wisdom and strength was contagious. Many of his friends approached their own driving and aging issues quite differently because of his example.

He still maintained a very active, independent lifestyle taking full advantage of public transportation and friends who drove as well as drive programs in the community. He was legally blind, but he volunteered at an elementary school, and taught classes at his senior center. Not only didn’t he feel sorry for himself, others didn’t feel sorry for him either. He was a lot of fun to be around. The children at the elementary school adored him, as did just about everyone else.

And for my friend’s family, the issue of stopping driving was easy. He took the initiative to make the decision for his own reasons.

(Next week read Dr. Dale Atkins follow up article on how to talk have "the talk" with your loved one when it’s no longer safe for them to drive)

About The Author
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Dr. Dale Atkins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship expert. For over thirty years "Dr. Dale" has focused on women’s health, work and family issues, aging well, adapting to disability and chronic illness, caregiving, and handling transitions and stress while maintaining a balanced life. The author of several books, textbook chapters, and articles in popular and professional journals, she is a frequent public speaker and guest expert on NBC’s The Today Show.  She sits on non-profit boards whose foci are literacy, tolerance, wellness and community action and she is an active volunteer in her community.

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