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Factors that contribute to unsafe driving


Older drivers have several circumstances that can lead to unsafe driving. These factors can seem to appear very suddenly, or may emerge gradually over a few years. Both physical and mental changes can lead to unsafe driving. This article lists some of the most common causes for unsafe driving in older adults.

Physical changes

Driving requires complex coordination of many different physical abilities. Eyesight, hearing, and physical strength are just a few of the physical factors involved in safe driving. Joint pain or stiffness and slower reflexes can cause problems.

  • Eyesight. Age-related changes in vision include cataracts, which cause blurred vision and night blindness; glaucoma, which commonly causes loss of peripheral vision; and macular degeneration, which causes blurred or distorted central vision.1
  • Hearing. Gradual hearing loss is common in older adults. Because hearing loss is often gradual, older drivers might not realize that their hearing is impaired enough to pose a danger. If the driver is unable to hear sirens, horns or other audible cues, they could be a dangerous driver.2
  • Physical strength. It takes strength to maneuver a two-ton vehicle. Fatigue and loss of physical functioning can affect a driver’s ability to brake, steer, adjust seat belts, look to the side and rear, and sit up straight while driving.
  • Joint pain or stiffness. Arthritis causes stiffness and pain in hands, feet, knees and other joints. This reduces flexibility and grip strength. If an older driver is unable to grip the wheel or turn their neck far enough, they can lose control of a car or fail to see an oncoming car. 
  • Slower reflexes. Driving, especially in high-traffic areas, often requires quick reflexes. The effects of aging on reflexes vary from person to person, but many older drivers experience loss of reflex time. This decreases reaction time and can cause unsafe driving.

Mental changes or other factors

In addition to coordination of physical abilities, driving requires strong mental faculties. Cognitive impairment or drug interactions can all impact safe driving.

  • Cognitive Impairment. Although some memory loss is inevitable with age, it can become dangerous when it affects driving. Cognitive impairment is a decline in one or more of the following: attention, short-term memory, judgment and problem-solving skills, and/or spatial skills and orientation. Inability to follow traffic rules, confusion, and lapses in judgment can all lead to accidents.3 
  • Drug interactions. Side effects from over-the-counter medications as well as dietary supplements and prescription drugs can cause unsafe driving and lead to accidents. Some—but not all—medications that can cause unsafe driving include sleep aids, anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs, muscle relaxants, opioid painkillers, and high blood pressure medications.4

Related information

Arranging for and conducting a formal driving assessment

Curtailing unsafe driving habits

Getting help with an unsafe driver

Modifying driving habits of older adults

Physically limiting vehicle access for unsafe drivers

Reviewing driving regulations and legal risks

Unsafe driving warning signs

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