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What can affect safe driving?

Poor eyesight, reduced hearing, deteriorating medical conditions and general tiredness could all have a worrying impact on the ability to drive safely.
5 min read
In this article
Driving safely in later life How eyesight can affect driving  Hearing and how to get it checked 
Tiredness and driving  Medical conditions and driving Car safety features that can help 

Driving safely in later life

Driving safely means many things: from ensuring that you leave enough space from the vehicle in front, to understanding the effects of wet weather on driving and so much more. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) produces an excellent range of fact sheets, covering many topics about which drivers of all ages should be aware.

 

Staying safe on the road means being fully aware of your abilities and limitations. Sometimes our health or eyesight can change without us being immediately aware, and some of these changes may affect our ability to drive.

 

Even if you’re confident of your driving ability, the advice in this guide may be useful if you’re concerned about an elderly friend or relative’s driving and feel the need to raise the matter with them.

How eyesight can affect driving 

Eyesight usually deteriorates with age and it’s important that older drivers have their eyes tested regularly. While many changes in eyesight can be treated by wearing glasses or contact lenses, others, such as cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration, may lead to a more permanent change in vision.

Free eye tests

The NHS offers free eye tests to people over the age of 60. Those aged between 60 and 70 are entitled to a free test every two years, while for those over 70, the free test is available annually. You’ll need to let your ophthalmic practitioner know if you’re entitled to a free NHS sight test, and you’ll be given a GOS1 form to fill in and sign.

 

If you have diabetes or glaucoma, or have been advised about being at risk of these conditions, the name and address of their doctor needs to be added to the form.

 

Drivers who require glasses or contact lenses in order to meet the DVLA’s (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) standards of vision for driving must wear them every time they drive.

 

If you’re concerned about your loved one’s eyesight, encourage them to book an eye test, especially if they are starting to find it difficult to drive once it gets dark.

My mother had glaucoma and was more or less blind in her left eye, so she found it very hard to judge distances.

Hearing and how to get it checked 

Age-related hearing loss affects roughly one in four people aged 65-75, and around half of those over 75. While impaired hearing itself isn’t necessarily a barrier to safe driving, problems arise when people are not aware of – or refuse to acknowledge – changes in their hearing ability. A person who thinks they can hear better than they actually do is less likely to hear an approaching vehicle, a car horn or an emergency services’ siren, putting themselves and others at risk.

 

It’s quick and simple to get a hearing test. There are various quick checks that can initially be made without having to visit a GP. Find out more from Action on Hearing loss.

 

Action on Hearing Loss

Helps people confront deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss to live the life they choose.

Action on Hearing Loss

Short and long-term care and support services for people who are deaf, deafblind or have hearing loss.

0333 240 5659

 

Watch the Which? Home & garden video guide to choosing the right hearing aid to find out the difference between various hearing aids, how to pick the right one and where to buy it. 

 

Tiredness and driving 

 

Although driving is not a physically strenuous task, the mental demands can be exhausting. For longer or unfamiliar journeys, it may be advisable to look at alternative transport options. If there is no alternative to driving, plan the route to include breaks and consider the best time of day to drive (for example, avoiding rush hour or driving after dark).

Medical conditions and driving

Some of the more common age-related medical conditions that could affect safe driving are listed below. Drivers have a legal responsibility to make the DVLA aware if they have certain health conditions, including problems with their eyesight that may affect their driving (and could invalidate their car insurance). A full list of these conditions can be found on the gov.uk website.

 

In Northern Ireland, medical condition rules may differ slightly. For more information, see the nidirect.gov.uk website.

Arthritis

Arthritis affects the joints, making them swollen, stiff and painful. It can occur in different joints within the body – most commonly hands, feet, back, hips and knees. Arthritic joints will have limited movement, which may present challenges with several aspects of driving (see useful tips for older drivers).

Alzheimer’s and dementia

Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia affect the way the brain works and may result in forgetfulness and disorientation. An added danger is that people with Alzheimer’s are often not aware of their own condition; they may therefore believe that they’re perfectly safe to drive, when in fact they could be putting themselves (and others) at great risk.

Diabetes

While in many cases diabetes can be controlled, people with diabetes can experience spells of sleepiness, dizziness and confusion. In some cases, diabetes can also lead to a seizure or a loss of consciousness.

Drivers have a legal responsibility to make the DVLA aware if they have certain health conditions that may affect their driving.

Parkinson’s

There are many symptoms of Parkinson’s, and the range and severity of these will vary from person to person. ‘Motor’ symptoms, which often affect movement, are relatively common and can include tremors, slowness of movement and stiffness – any of which could make it difficult to react quickly and effectively when driving.

Stroke

The effects of stroke can vary widely, from problems with vision and memory to partial paralysis. It’s also sometimes the case that people recovering from a stroke do not realise the full extent of their condition and the associated limitations.

 

Car safety features that can help 

 

Many newer cars have advanced safety features, to help you get from A to B without any mishaps. These include:

  • Electronic stability control (ESC): this is software that can automatically reduce a car’s engine power - and sometimes operate individual brakes - should it detect the car is about to lose stability or is at risk of skidding.
  • Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB): this uses a variety of sensors and cameras to monitor the road ahead, and will audibly alert you to an impending collision. Plus, it will automatically perform an emergency stop if it doesn’t think you’ve done enough to prevent collision.
  • Lane-keeping technology: a basic version simply warns you if you’re straying too close to the edge of your lane on the motorway without indicating. More advanced systems will automatically make steering adjustments to keep you within the lines.

These only scratch the surface of the many safety features you’ll find on cars these days. For more information on the above features - and the other most important ones – read the car safety features explained guide on the Which? Cars site.

Further reading

Useful tips for older drivers

Older people can experience difficulty with driving for many reasons. We offer useful tips for older drivers to be ...

The Blue Badge scheme

A Blue Badge allows people with disabilities to park closer to their destination. Read about eligibility and applying.

Last updated: 11 Dec 2018