How Aging Can Affect Driving

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As we age, our physical and mental abilities change, and some of those changes – including our vision, hearing and ability to react quickly – can affect our driving.

These changes generally happen very slowly, so it’s important to evaluate these changes early and often to ensure we understand how our ability to drive is being affected, and then take steps to ensure we can continue to drive safely.

There are Various Changes Caused By Age

CAA has gathered tools and information from various experts, including the Canadian Medical Association and Health Canada, that explain the changes that happen as we age, and how they can affect driving skills. The next section contains information and tools that can help drivers compensate for these changes.

Watch CAA’s informative video, which explains some of the physical and mental changes that happen as we age.

 

Vision

Having good vision is a critical factor in our ability to drive safely.

As we age, various changes to our vision happen over time, and many of these can affect our driving: the amount of light we need to see clearly, the narrowing of our field of view, and our ability to focus. CAA has compiled tools and information to help you to understand the vision changes that occur as you age.

Night Driving

In several provinces, in order to have our licence renewed after the age of 80, we are required to have our eyes tested periodically. To link to your province’s regulations, click here. Note that even if a driver is able to see clearly in the eye doctor’s office and passes the eye exam, their ability to see in the dark may be diminished, so it’s important to take steps to ensure we can drive safely at night.

Changing Focus & Field of View

As we age, vision changes often necessitate corrective lenses or eye surgery to keep our vision as sharp as possible.

If you have trouble with your vision and notice a change in what you can see while driving, it’s important to get tested by a professional to determine potential nearsightedness or farsightedness – or both.

Age also affects our field of view, or how far we can see clearly. The tool below illustrates how changes to our field of view affect our ability to see things that might be a safety risk on the road.

 

Light Requirements

Our pupils get smaller as we age and don’t dilate as much in the dark, making it harder to see. Our ability to see things such as people walking along the side of the road and reflective road signs and markings is affected. Smaller pupils also affect our ability to manage glare. 

Other Common Vision Problems

Why it’s important to have annual vision checks:

  • Our vision changes gradually as we age and can be hard to notice.
  • Ensure our lens prescription is correct.
  • Check for common eye conditions related to aging such as glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts.
  • Medical intervention can help with these conditions and help us maintain good vision.
  • Ensure our sight is good enough to continue driving.

Common Eye Conditions

Glaucoma develops when the pressure within the eye starts to destroy the nerve fibres within the retina. If not treated early, glaucoma can cause vision loss and blindness. Because most people have no early symptoms, regular eye examinations are required to detect it. Treatment may include eye drops, medication, or surgery.

Cataracts are a gradual clouding of the natural lens of the eye, preventing light from reaching the retina. The clouding may prevent you from being able to read or drive unless the cataract is removed. This is a common condition and one of the most successful surgeries done in medicine today.

Macular degeneration occurs when the macula (the central part of the retina responsible for sharp focus) is damaged. This damage may be the result of many factors, including aging, and it causes permanent loss of central vision. Regular eye exams can detect the disease early on and laser treatments can slow down the central vision loss.

The Canadian Medical Association warns in its Driver’s Guide that contrast sensitivity, which measures the ability to see details at low contrast levels (or in dim lighting), may also affect an individual’s ability to drive:

Contrast sensitivity: Individuals with reduced contrast sensitivity may experience difficulty with driving, in spite of having adequate visual acuity. However, it is unclear at this time what level of reduction in contrast sensitivity represents an unacceptable risk for driving. Loss of contrast sensitivity can be associated with increased age, cataracts, refractive surgery and other ocular disorders.

Hearing

We all know that our hearing is an important part of our ability to drive safely.

After all, if we can’t hear another driver honking a warning about an imminent fender-bender, we might not react to the situation in time. The Canadian Hearing Society estimates that in Canada more than 60% of seniors over the age of 65 have age-related hearing loss.

Symptoms of age-related hearing loss can include:

  • Difficulty hearing things in noisy areas (such as in traffic).
  • Difficulty distinguishing high-pitched sounds (such as emergency vehicle sirens) from one another.
  • More difficulty hearing men’s voices than women’s voices.
  • Voices sound mumbled or slurred.
  • Ringing sounds in the ears.

If any driver has hearing loss, it’s important that they take steps to treat it so that they can continue to drive safely. There are numerous effective treatments for age-related hearing loss, including surgery, or simply being fitted for a hearing aid – and many of today’s hearing aids are virtually invisible to others. Information from the Canadian Hearing Society on hearing aids and when to consider one can be found here.

Motor Skills & Reaction Time

As we age, many of us find that our reaction time slows, making it harder to manage dangerous driving situations such as another driver pulling out in front of us unexpectedly.

Slower reaction times can be caused by diminishing motor skills – a side-effect of common age-related diseases, such as arthritis – and by our decreased ability to concentrate.

The Canadian Medical Association, on the topic of arthritis, other musculoskeletal pain and ankylosis in the organization’s Driver’s Guide, states:

Degenerative or inflammatory arthritis can result in pain, as well as loss of muscle strength, range of motion and function of the involved joints. People with arthritis may have difficulty turning their heads to perform safety checks because of pain and stiffness of the cervical and thoracolumbar spine. Inflammatory arthritis can result in persistent pain and reduced range of movement in multiple joints, including knees, ankles, hips, shoulders, elbows, wrists and joints of the hands.

An individual should be restricted from driving if pain adversely affects his or her ability to drive safely or if he or she lacks range of movement or strength to execute the coordinated activities required. However, most difficulties of this type can be overcome by simple modifications to the vehicle or adjustment of driving technique. If there are concerns, the individual should be required to demonstrate his or her ability to a driver examiner.

Effectively manage dangerous situations on the road:

  • Don’t drive if pain is adversely affecting our ability to react quickly.
  • Don’t drive while distracted and remain focused on the task at hand at all times.
  • Use the interactive driving skills assessment found here if you believe diminished motor skills and reaction times affect your ability to drive safely.

Canadian Medical Association, CMA Driver’s Guide Determining Medical Fitness to Operate Motor Vehicles, 8th Ed, Section 21, Ottawa: Canadian Medical Association, 2012, modified and used with the permission of CMA; recognition to Dr. Cabana. 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: permissions@accesscopyright.ca.