The Physical Changes of Aging

The functional declines that affect driving aren’t universal. Specific abilities vary widely among older, aging people. Drivers who stay healthy and learn to compensate for change can drive safely longer. If they drove safely in middle age, they’re likely to carry those habits into their later years.

“Older drivers are very cautious,” confirms ERIE Agent Charlie Peterson of Peterson Insurance Services in Havertown, Pa. “They value being able to drive.”

What happens as we age?

1. Vision declines. Older eyes are less sharp, need more contrast and hate glare. The perceptual system finds it harder to gauge changes in angle size and motion, as well as detect patterns. In other words, it’s harder to read signs, drive at night, judge distances and back out in the parking lot.

2. Physical ability changes. People tend to have weaker arms and legs, achy joints, and lose some range of motion. Reaction time slows. For instance, neck arthritis could make it tough to check the blind spot; it’s harder (and slower) to slam on the brakes.

3. Mental changes take effect. Age alters our visual attention, working memory (mentally juggling several items) and attention.

Distraction may be the first thing people notice, according to Peterson.

“Older drivers seem to be very conscious of not doing things that would distract them,” he says. “And they don’t talk on the cell phone; they pull over.”

Dave Freeman, ERIE vice president and manager, Personal Lines Underwriting, credits older drivers with using a lifetime of driving experience to handle what comes up, such as sizing up escape routes and opportunities to brake. That said, claims histories show that older drivers sometimes have problems backing out in parking lots, misjudging distances and scraping other cars. A recent field study of older drivers in Australia (published in Neuropsychology) found that blind spot errors increased with age, followed by veering across lanes and failing to use turn signals.

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