There are over 50 million people in the U.S. over the age 65 and close to 90 percent of them are still driving. Driving maintains a senior’s independence, so taking away their car keys should not be done lightly. Yet, as a person ages, his or her vision changes. Areas where older drivers experience trouble include:
Reading road signs
Dealing with the glare of headlights at night
Trouble telling red and green traffic lights apart.
In the U.S., driving regulations vary by state. For example, Florida requires a standard vision of 20/70 in at least one eye, with or without eyeglasses and drivers over the age of 80 are retested every six years. In contrast, Vermont has drivers take a vision test when they initially apply for a license, not when they renew their license. This leads to the question of vision screenings and if they identify those seniors who are most likely to get into an accident.
A study done at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine looked into whether or not screenings can identify who would be most likely to get into an accident. Gerald McGwin Jr., Ph.D., professor in the UAB School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology, and Cynthia Owsley, Ph.D., professor in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, studied 2,000 licensed drivers age 70 years or older who resided in Jefferson County, Alabama.
During the initial visit to establish a baseline, the following measurement were done on the subjects: visual acuity, contrast and visual field sensitivity, the Useful Field of View test and the Motor-Free Visual Perception test. The subjects were then followed for four years for to see if they would be involved in police recorded motor vehicle accident.
The researchers found that there was a statistically significant positive rate ratio for the link between vision impairment and the future occurrence of a car accident, yet the significance of the association was weak. In fact, researchers felt that collectively, they were inadequate to be a screener for senior drivers.
They also feel that the use of these metrics would end up penalizing older drivers, who are not likely to experience a car accident, despite being at an increased risk. Still, there are ways to reduce the likelihood of senior drivers getting into accidents. There are refresher courses developed for drivers over the age of 65, such as AAA RoadWise Driver or AARP’s Smart Driver course that go over the rules of the road and remind drivers about good driving habits. Studies have shown that these kinds of courses reduce the likelihood of participants getting into car accidents. Of course, if it has been shown that the senior can no longer drive, alternative means of transportation need to be utilized, such as public transit or ride share programs.
While having good vision is important when it comes to driving, it isn’t the only thing that affects driving ability. Others things that affect driving ability include physical and cognitive functioning, as well as the side effects of certain medications. These things need to be taken into account, along with vision, when it comes to assessing whether or not an older person can still drive.
If you know a driver over the age of 65 encourage them to take driver’s refresher course and to get regular checkups, which includes vision exams, to catch any health issues, so that they can drive for as long as possible.