How do you get to work each day? Most of us slip behind the wheel of a car. In fact, according to Gallup, 83 percent of American adults drive several times each week, and 64 percent of us drive every day.

You need agility and flexibility to drive a car, but you also need crisp vision. Age-related eye changes and some types of ocular disease can make seeing the road difficult. (Learn more)

When that happens, you might feel nervous or worried about driving, and you might start to make subtle mistakes when you slip behind the wheel. (Learn more)

If you've been driving for decades, it's tough to think about giving up your keys. In some states, the decision to keep driving won't be yours to make. You'll need to pass a vision exam periodically, and if you can't, you won't have a license.

If that hasn't happened yet but you're not sure if it's time, a close friend can ride with you and give you advice. (Learn more)

If you must stop driving, you're not stuck at home. You can hop on a bus, hail a ride through your phone, or try walking or riding your bike. (Learn more)

Vision Changes That Impair Safe Driving

When you fire up the engine and pull into traffic, you're not just putting your safety at risk. You're also responsible for all the other drivers, pedestrians, dogs, cats, and kids that cross your path. Changes in your vision could make it hard for you to see some or all of these things.

As our eyes age, they stiffen and clear surfaces cloud. These changes are natural, but they can make routine driving activities tough. The American Optometric Association says people 60 and older can struggle with:

  • Road signs. The shape and color of signs can grow indistinct, and that could leave you feeling unsure of what's permitted.
  • Instrument panels. If close vision is an issue for you, it could be hard for you to gauge your speed.
  • Glare. Oncoming headlights can seem brighter than they did before, and in some cases, the light can leave you dazzled and unable to see anything at all.
  • Peripheral vision. You might need to turn your head to see objects coming at you from the side.
  • Color. Is the traffic light red or green? Changes in color perception could make answering that question very difficult.

Age-related changes aren't the only things that can detract from safe driving. Some eye diseases can impair your vision, and they can strike people of almost any age.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology says driving can be tough for people with:

  • Cataracts. This clouding of the lens in the front of the eye can amplify the brightness of headlights and streetlights. They can also leech the color out of signs and traffic signals.
  • Macular degeneration. This disease causes gaps in the center of your visual field. You might be able to see items coming your direction from the sides, but the area right in front of your car might be lost to your sight.
  • Retinopathy. This diabetes complication damages the retina, and that can lead to a loss of both central and peripheral vision.
  • Glaucoma. Blind spots in central or peripheral vision appear as this disease damages the optic nerve.

Even seemingly minor eye health problems can make crisp vision difficult. Chronic dry eye, for example, can impair your ability to see clearly at night.

Driving Changes You Might Notice

perspective of someone with blurry vision

Some eye health conditions, like glaucoma and retinopathy, cause such big problems that you know driving just isn't safe. But others cause subtle shifts, and that can leave you wondering if you should stop driving or wait for things to worsen.

There are some vision signs, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, that are too serious to ignore. They include:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Intolerance of glare from headlights.
  • Dark spots obscuring your vision.
  • Inability to see things like pedestrians or difficulty reading road signs.

Try driving an unfamiliar route at dawn or dusk, and be honest about how well you can see during the trip. You might find that your "good" skills were based on muscle memory and luck.

AARP suggests that these signs could also indicate unsafe driving, and some of these attributes have little to do with vision:

  • Decreased confidence in your driving skills
  • Weaving into and out of your driving lane
  • Hitting the curb when you're making a right turn
  • Frequent car dings and scratches
  • Many close calls

If you can't see well, it's hard to navigate your car safely from one place to another. It's best to stop driving before a close call becomes a serious accident.

Should You Stop Driving?

woman making no gesture

Often, drivers know when it's time to give up their keys. You might have shifted your driving behaviors as your vision changed so you could stay a little safer on the road. But if you're really not sure, your friends and your state can give guidance.

Research cited by Prevent Blindness suggests that people with low vision make adjustments, such as:

  • Driving only short distances.
  • Limiting trips to one hour or less.
  • Sticking to familiar locations.
  • Avoiding night driving.

Steps like this can help you stay a bit safer, but there may come a day when it's just not reasonable for you to continue with your driving habit. You may find that out when it's time to renew your license.

In most states, you'll need to pass a visual acuity exam before you can renew your license. This exam works much like the vision test you take at the doctor's office. You'll stand far from a board marked with letters, and you'll call out the ones you can read.

In some states, older drivers are required to take these tests every five years or less. In others, someone who sees you driving in an unsafe manner can ask for additional testing.

You can ask for input, so people can help you without getting officials involved.

Ask someone you trust to go on car trips with you and point out any risks you’re taking. Your passenger might tell you about:

  • Lane changes.
  • Pedestrians waiting to cross the street.
  • Squirrels running into the road.
  • Stop signs you've ignored.
  • Slow reactions to hazards.

This is hard feedback to digest, but it can help you see all the dangers you've been overlooking. At the end of a trip like this, you might be convinced that your best driving days are behind you.

ride share app

Life Without a Driver's License

Just because you can't drive doesn't mean you can't leave your house. In fact, it's easier now than ever to get from place to place without a car.

Your options include:

  • Public transportation. Buses, trams, and light-rail systems can get you from place to place at a low cost with no driving involved. In some cities, you can get a discount on a transportation pass with proof of a vision-related disability.
  • Ridesharing. Companies like Uber and Lyft let you hail a car from your phone, and you don't need cash to pay your driver.
  • Cycling. Some cities make bike riding both safe and easy. Cyclists move at a slower speed than drivers do, and that could help you accommodate some vision problems.
  • Walking. It's healthy for your body to walk a bit each day, and you might enjoy the stroll too. If your vision is quite poor, you'll need sturdy shoes and a walking stick to make the trip safely.
  • Senior services. Some communities offer services for seniors, so you can go to doctors’ appointments in a vehicle at no cost. Your doctor can tell you more about these opportunities.

Your friends and family members might also be willing to help you with transportation.

None of these options are as convenient as hopping into a car and stepping on the gas pedal. But all of them are reasonable for people who struggle with vision.

Using them helps you keep yourself and your entire community safe. That's worth a bit of extra work.

References

83 Percent of U.S. Adults Drive Frequently; Fewer Enjoy It a Lot. (July 2018). Gallup.

Adult Vision: Over 60 Years of Age. American Optometric Association.

Vision and Driving. (November 2018). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

We Need to Talk: The Difficult Driving Conversation. AARP.

Low-Vision Seniors Are Self-Limiting Driving. (December 2016). Prevent Blindness.

What Is the Average Age Seniors Stop Driving? Factors in Determining Older Driver Safety. (December 2017). Institute on Aging.

State by State Look at Driving Rules for Older Drivers. (September 2012). Claims Journal.