Giving Up the Car Keys Because of Aging and Vision Loss

The ability to drive is an important part of life and independence. Being able to jump into the car at any time and go anywhere provides an incredible freedom of movement.

However, as people get older, they can experience hearing and vision impairment. They may also experience a decline in cognition. These health issues can make it unsafe to drive and a struggle to give up the car keys.

According to the CDC, there were more than 45 million licensed drivers 65 and older in the United States in 2018. This is a 60% increase since 2000. But the risk of being injured or killed in a traffic crash increases as people age. In 2019, about 8,000 older adults (aged 65+) were killed in traffic crashes, and more than 250,000 were treated in emergency rooms for crash injuries. 

Seniors want to remain active as long as possible and see driving as vital to their independence. Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, Dec. 6-10, underscores the fundamental role that mobility and transportation play to keep seniors involved in their communities. During this first full week in December, it is suggested seniors living with vision impairment reevaluate their condition to determine if continuing to drive is best. This is also a good time for loved ones of older drivers to discuss any safety concerns. 

Signs it’s time to stop driving

How do you know when it’s time? Only you really know the full answer to this question but here are 10 helpful signs provided by Second Sense, a vision rehabilitation center:

  1. You are nervous behind the wheel.

  2. Your vision slows your reactions.

  3. You have trouble reading street signs.

  4. You’ve had a near mishap because you didn’t see a pedestrian, an object or another vehicle.

  5. You get lost easily.

  6. Oncoming lights temporarily blind you.

  7. The sun hurts your eyes, but dark lenses make it difficult to see.

  8. You find it abnormally difficult to see at dusk or dawn.

  9. Your color perception is diminished.

  10. People whom you trust recommend it. (Sometimes they notice things you don’t.)

Vision changes that affect driving.

In addition to the 10 signs, talk with your eye doctor about vision concerns. Your doctor can do a comprehensive eye exam  and diagnose changes in your vision. Have an eye exam annually to maintain good eye health. Here are some vision changes that come with aging.

  1. Decreased pupil size: Aging causes the pupil size to reduce, which means eyes are less responsive to changes in light. Seniors need more ambient light to see clearly. Reduced pupil size also can cause a glare effect in bright sunlight. Glare sensitivity can cause temporary loss of clear vision, and impact reaction time when driving.

  2. Vitreous detachment: The eye’s vitreous body is a clear gel between the retina and the lens. Aging causes vitreous detachment, leading to flashes of light, floaters or spots. While the effects are mostly harmless on foot, they can impact your line of vision behind the wheel.

  3. Presbyopia: Presbyopia affects adults 40 and older. This is a term for difficulty seeing things up close. Safe driving requires the ability to read signs and see what’s in front of you to avoid hitting things, park correctly and complete other essential driving functions.

  4. Low light vision difficulties: As people enter their 60s, seeing clearly in low lighting decreases and making driving at sunset and later harder.

  5. Myopia: Also known as nearsightedness, myopia can take the form of myopic creep, meaning the condition worsens with age. Myopia can make it difficult to read highway signs or see vehicles and hazards in the distance.

  6. Loss of peripheral vision: Each decade decreases peripheral vision up to three degrees. This means, when you reach your 70s, you may have lost peripheral vision by around 20 degrees. This can impact your ability to see the vehicles around you and change lanes safely, especially when there are obstacles in blind spots.

  7. Dry eyes: We produce fewer tears as we age, which can lead to dry eyes. Dry eyes can result in burning or stinging sensations. If these come on while you’re driving, it can be distracting and dangerous.

Coping with putting the keys down.

Eye doctors are not the only ones concerned about vision impairment and driving. Family and friends may express worries  too. If you are a loved one or friend of a senior who needs to stop driving, approach the topic with love and sensitivity. Schedule time and have a full discussion. Share key points of concern and risk while giving encouragement. Provide a list of options for alternative transportation.

Your life is not over if you discover your vision has decreased and driving is unsafe. You can still keep a level of independence and mobility. First, recognize feelings of grief and loss as the ability to drive is a major part of life. Next, talk to family and friends to share any worries, fears and/or concerns. Create a circle of support for this large life change to help you manage the challenges and produce solutions. Attending Outlook Enrichment’s peer support group is a great place to start and chat with others who share similar experiences.

Use alternative transportation.

Investigate alternative transportation. Research public transit, ride share programs, senior ride programs, taxi cabs and rides from friends and family. Requesting a ride is not a sign of helplessness. You can still maintain control and independence by determining your type of transportation and when you want to travel. Helpful resources are available for seniors with vision loss and need to stop driving. Outlook Enrichment  can help you explore ways to stay mobile, maintain your independence and quality of life.