Driving Skills Review

Every Canadian driver should review driving skills on a regular basis. But it’s especially important to do so as we age.

CAA has pulled together tips and advice on managing common driving challenges. In some cases, such as driving at night or driving in bad weather, the safest decision for some seniors might be to find alternative transportation. We have also included sections on driving manoeuvres that are especially relevant to seniors as they are over-represented in accidents related to them, including merging and making left-hand turns, and a section on roundabouts, which have become more and more popular in Canada over the past 10 years.

Man driving intensely with hands on the wheel

Managing Slower Reactions Times

By treating the cause of slower reaction times, and changing driving habits to avoid situations that test our ability to react quickly (such as driving on a busy highway at rush hour), we can continue to drive safely longer.

Another important factor in managing reaction times is ensuring that adjustments have been made to the vehicle – such as mirrors and distance from the wheel – so that our car will maximize our ability to drive safely. CAA has developed an excellent pre-driving checklist, which can help drivers make adjustments accurately.

Driving is a complex, fast-paced activity. Drivers have to process information, use that information to determine an action, and then react based on their decision. Completing these three steps quickly requires a sharp mind and a fit and flexible body.

While the single most effective way to improve reaction time is to keep physically and mentally fit, there are other ways to compensate for slower reaction times.

  • Increase your following distance. Allow a greater distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you, so you’ll have more time to slow down or stop.
  • Plan your route before you get behind the wheel. Doing this will help you to avoid making any last-minute decisions about which way to turn or how to reach your destination.
  • Try to steer clear of busy highways and congested traffic. High-speed driving can be stressful, so don’t hesitate to use local roads instead of highways. Also try to avoid rush hour traffic or highly congested areas. More vehicles on the road translate to a greater likelihood of a collision. Also consider using public transportation if it’s available to you.
  • Review your medications. Prescription and over-the-counter medications can slow reflexes, blur vision and cause drowsiness or dizziness. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about making adjustments that can keep you safe behind the wheel.
  • Eliminate distractions inside the vehicle. Adjusting radio volume, using a phone and interacting with passengers can distract any driver. Keep the environment inside your vehicle as calm and distraction-free as possible.
  • Stay awake and alert. Drowsy driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving. Be sure to get enough sleep before a long trip and take frequent breaks along the way.

Driving at Night

Driving at night presents challenges to all drivers, but it can be especially challenging as we age, because we need more light to be able to see clearly, and because our ability to focus changes, as does the size of our field of vision.

As a senior, you may choose to limit or regulate your night-driving because of decreased vision or other safety-related concerns. The Canadian Medical Association states in its Driver’s Guide that: Dark adaptation and glare recovery, or the ability to adapt to decreased illumination and to recover rapidly from exposure to glaring headlights, is of great importance for night driving. The partial loss of these functions in elderly people, particularly those with cataracts or macular disease, may in some cases justify limiting driving to daylight hours.

If you are confident in your ability to drive at night, there are some things that can be done to increase your ability to drive safely.

To minimize challenges of night driving:

  • Slow down. Drive slowly enough that you have ample time to stop for an obstacle seen at the far reaches of your headlights. Increase your following distance to four or more seconds behind the car in front of you.
  • Keep your eyes moving. Do not just focus on the middle of the area illuminated by your headlights. Watch for sudden flashes of light at hilltops, around curves or at intersections, because these may indicate the presence of oncoming vehicles.
  • Look at the sides of objects. In dim light, focus on the edges or outlines of objects. Your eyes can pick up images more sharply this way than by looking directly at the object.
  • Avoid being blinded by oncoming high beams. If the driver of an oncoming vehicle fails to dim the lights, look down toward the right side of the road to avoid being blinded. You should be able to see the edge of the lane or the painted edge line and stay on course until the vehicle passes.
  • Protect your eyes from glare. Prolonged exposure to glare from sunlight or headlights can temporarily affect your night vision. It can also lead to eyestrain and drowsiness. Wear good sunglasses on bright days and take them off as soon as the sun goes down.

As well, glare from oncoming traffic and cars following you can momentarily affect your vision

Driving at Night Tool
Row of cars covered in fresh snowfall

Driving in Bad Weather

The best way to avoid the challenges of driving in bad weather is simply to avoid driving in it, whenever possible. Of course, sometimes it is unavoidable – especially here in Canada in the winter-time, when sudden snow squalls are quite common. Here are some general tips on driving safely in rain, snow, or fog.

When driving in bad weather:

  • Give yourself more time to get to your destination.
  • Check your vehicle and make sure your tires, wipers and lights are in good condition.
  • Keep your windshield wiper blades fresh. Many drivers change them every six months.
  • If you have a cell phone, make sure it’s charged. (Just don’t use it while you’re driving!)
  • Have an emergency kit in your vehicle. Transport Canada has put together a short video with tips and advice on what to include in your emergency kit.
  • In snowy conditions, ensure you clear all snow and ice from the vehicle’s windows, roof, hood, trunk lid and any other covered areas, as well as from your head, tail and signal lights. This will enhance your own visibility, and drivers around you won’t be blinded by snow blowing off your vehicle.

When you’re on the road:

  • As soon as you start the car, turn on your headlights (and fog lights in foggy conditions) and your wipers.
  • Give yourself plenty of space around other vehicles.
  • Slow down! Adjust your speed to prevent hydroplaning and skidding on ice and snow.
  • In severe weather conditions, emergency flashers may help make you more visible to other drivers.

Leaving the roadway:

  • If you must pull off the road, wait for conditions to improve and pull off the road as far as you can, preferably past the end of a guardrail.
  • It is best to pull into a rest area or parking lot, rather than onto the road’s shoulder.
  • Put on your hazard lights to ensure oncoming traffic can see your vehicle.

For more information on winter driving download Transport Canada’s Winter Driving brochure.

Driving Through a Roundabout Safely

A modern roundabout is essentially a small traffic circle or rotary. Roundabouts have an entry “splitter” that slows down or constrains speed just before moving into the roundabout. Vehicles that are already in the roundabout have the right of way.

How to drive a roundabout:

  • As you approach a roundabout, there will be a YIELD sign and dashed yield limit line. Slow down, watch for pedestrians and bicyclists and be prepared to stop if necessary.
  • When you enter, yield to circulating traffic on the left, but do not stop if the way is clear.
  • Left turns are completed by traveling around the central island and making a right exit.


Left-Hand Turns

Drivers 65 and over account for twice as many fatalities while attempting left-hand turns than drivers aged 26 to 64. If a driver is distracted, or their visibility is compromised by their lack of mobility, making a left-hand turn that isn’t controlled by a traffic arrow may be dangerous.

Making a safe left-hand turn:

  • Signal for the turn at least 50 metres in advance of the intersection.
  • Make sure there are no other vehicles, bicycles, motorcycles or pedestrians in your path. Be ready to yield to anyone in the crosswalk.
  • Don’t begin turning until your car is even with the lane you want to turn into. Double-check for oncoming cars and pedestrians before making the turn.

How to Safely Merge

Merging can be stressful for some drivers. And with good reason: merging requires a driver to pay attention to things happening behind the vehicle, in front of the vehicle and in two lanes to the left of the vehicle. If you are finding it difficult to merge, consider avoiding highways and using secondary roads instead.

Some helpful suggestions for merging successfully:

  • Check oncoming traffic. While on the ramp, as soon as you can see highway traffic approaching from behind, check your mirrors and blind spot for a space to merge safely. At the same time, watch any vehicles in front of you on the ramp and keep back a safe distance.
  • Signal. If you have not done so already, turn on your signal as soon as traffic on the highway is able to see your vehicle on the ramp.
  • Allow enough space between your car and the car in front of you. While on the ramp and merging with highway traffic, keep at least a two- to three-second distance behind the vehicle in front of you. Time your merge so you do not move in beside another vehicle or into the blind spot of another vehicle. If traffic is heavy or moving at such a high speed that it is difficult to keep an ideal following distance, adjust your speed to get the best spacing possible.
  • Adjust your speed. On the curve of the entrance ramp, keep your speed slow enough so that objects and people inside your vehicle are not pushed from the force created by turning the curve. While in the acceleration lane, increase your speed to match that of highway traffic. While merging, control your speed to blend smoothly with traffic.
  • Merge. Merge with traffic in a smooth, gradual movement to the centre of the nearest lane.

Canadian Medical Association, CMA Driver’s Guide Determining Medical Fitness to Operate Motor Vehicles, 8th Ed, Section 12, Ottawa: Canadian Medical Association, 2012, modified and used with the permission of CMA; recognition to the Canadian Ophthalmological Society. CMA does not assume any responsibility for liability arising from any error in or omission from the use of any information contained in these sections. Permission to photocopy this section should be sought from Access Copyright, One Yonge St, Suite 800, Toronto, ON M5E 1E5, T: (416) 868-1620, E: [email protected].