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Senior Guide for Safe Driving - Part 1


Senior Guide for Safe Driving

Part 1: Recognizing Change

By the year 2030, an estimated 1 in 5 drivers in the United States (U.S.) will be 65 years old or older. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) would like all drivers to maintain their driving independence for as long as they can safely do so. This guide has been developed to provide insight to the changes that occur in vision, flexibility, strength, and other physical characteristics that may affect safe driving as you age. In this guide, you will find self-assessment tools, tips, and resources to help you take an active role in managing your personal safety and the safety of others.

Debunking the Myth

Myth: DMV automatically reexamines drivers after they reach a certain age. 
Fact: A person’s age alone is not a sufficient basis for a reexamination. DMV has the authority to investigate and reexamine every driver’s ability to operate a motor vehicle safely, due to a physical or mental condition or a poor driving record.

DMV's Responsibilities

Some of DMV’s major responsibilities are to promote traffic safety and protect the motoring public by minimizing the number of unsafe drivers. DMV understands the important connection between a driver license and a person’s independence and keeps this in mind when evaluating a driver. 

DMV's Senior Driver Ombudsman Section

DMV has a Senior Driver Ombudsman Section to address the concerns of seniors as it relates to safe driving. DMV, with the ombudsmen, strives to work with the public in a continuing effort to keep seniors 
driving safely for as long as they can. 

The primary function of the Senior Driver Ombudsman Section is to represent the interests of public safety for all Californians with a special interest in addressing the concerns of senior drivers. The ombudsmen can assist as a “go-between” to ensure that senior drivers are treated fairly, consistent with laws and regulations, and with dignity and respect. While the Senior Driver Ombudsman cannot represent you in a DMV hearing or reexamination, the ombudsman will give you tools and information needed during these contacts. 

The ombudsmen are available to assist in individual cases, as well as participate in outreach seminars for large and small audiences to promote driver safety in California with an emphasis on senior concerns. If you would like an ombudsman to come to your group or event to make a presentation or you need other assistance, please contact the Senior Driver Ombudsman Section at the following locations:

  • Los Angeles and Central Coast Counties
    • (310) 615-3552 
  • Sacramento and Northern California Counties
    • (916) 657-6464 
  • Orange County and Southern California Counties
    • (714) 705-1588 
  • San Francisco, Oakland, and the Bay Area
    • (510) 563-8998

Your Health

Your health is closely connected to your driving. You must be able to see well enough to detect hazards in different types of lighting, judge distances, adjust to the speed of traffic, and read road signs. Your brain must be alert enough to quickly decide the correct course of action in any type of traffic situation, including unexpected ones. Your body must also be able to respond and react quickly.

“By 2030 it is estimated that 1 in 5 drivers 
in the U.S. will be 65 years old or older”

As you get older, you change physically and mentally. These changes can and do affect your driving skills. Becoming older does not automatically result in decreased driving skills. Many people continue to be safe drivers well into their retirement years. You have control over lifestyle choices that may affect your health; for example, what and when you eat, how much and what kind of exercise you get, how you handle stress, your frequency of social interaction, etc. 

A healthy, responsive body, along with an alert mind, requires good nutrition, adequate rest, and exercise to maintain or increase strength, flexibility, and sharp reflexes.


Proper nutrition helps us maintain our health and provides us with the energy needed for daily activities, including safe driving. It is easy to overlook the warning signs of poor nutritional health as we become older, so always consult your physician before making any dietary or nutritional changes.

If you seem to have lost your appetite, discuss this with your physician. Loss of appetite can sometimes be a symptom of illness or the side effect of a medication that may affect safe driving. The checklist on the next page is a tool to help you identify areas that may need more attention. Complete the checklist and take it with you to discuss your nutritional health with your physician.

This nutrition checklist is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. It is only a tool to help you identify and raise awareness of your current nutritional habits. Speak to your physician if you have questions or concerns about your nutrition.

Nutrition Checklist

  Yes No
I eat at least 3 meals daily.    
I eat dairy products most days.    
I eat 5 servings of vegetables most days.    
I changed the amount and/or type of food I eat
due to a medical condition.
I drink 6 to 8 cups of fluids most days.    
I usually have enough money to buy food.    
I have 3 or more glasses of beer, wine, or
alcohol each day.
I eat alone most of the time.    
I have teeth, mouth, or swallowing problems
that make eating difficult.
I take 3 or more different prescription or
over-the-counter medications daily.
I often shop, cook, and/or feed myself.    
I take vitamin supplements.    
I have gained more than 11 pounds in the
last 6 months.

Physical and Mental Fitness

Maturity brings with it a change in our physical mobility. For example, can you still turn your head to look over your shoulder when backing a vehicle or changing lanes? Do you feel weakness in your arms or legs when steering, braking, or accelerating? Staying fit and active will help you maintain the muscle strength and flexibility you need to drive safely. 

“Maturity brings with it a change in our physical mobility”

Exercise and physical activity do not have to be strenuous, or require special equipment, or clothing. You can exercise in the comfort of your own home by lifting light-weight items such as soup cans, 8 ounce water bottles, etc. You can rhythmically squeeze a small ball or stuffed animal to strengthen your hand and upper arms while watching television. No matter what your condition or age, there is some type of exercise or activity you can do that will provide health benefits. You could try: 

  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Dancing
  • Lifting weights
  • Gardening
  • Shopping
  • Water aerobics
  • Exercise programs (check with your local senior center, medical doctor, community announcements, etc.) 

These are just a few suggestions. The important thing is to be active and do what is comfortable for you – an activity you enjoy. Exercise not only makes driving easier and safer, it can prevent or delay many disabilities, diseases, and other conditions. Ask your physician what type of activity would be suitable for you and consult them before beginning any new activity. 

Mental exercise is also beneficial. Read, work crossword puzzles, and play games that use words or numbers, even if you’re the only one keeping score. Jigsaw puzzles sharpen your visual search skills. Charades and solitaire are activities that involve your thinking skills. 

Changes in Muscles, Joints, and Bones

As we get older, our reflexes slow, we lose muscle strength, joint flexibility, and our bones become brittle. Slower reflexes, combined with even minor vision loss, can make ordinary driving situations dangerous.

Safe Driving Tips

  • Stiff joints and/or the effects of osteoporosis can make turning your head to see behind you difficult.
    • Install large side mirrors and/or a panoramic mirror on your vehicle.
    • Turn your body to look behind you when backing or changing lanes.
  • As muscles lose strength, turning the steering wheel gets harder to perform. Do not swing wide on turns to compensate. 
    • Drive a vehicle with power steering.
    • If you still have trouble, try using a turning knob. 
  • Tired muscles and sore joints may distract you from concentrating on the road. 
    • Make sure you are well-rested before driving.
    • Stop frequently to rest on long trips.
  • Broken bones, even when fully healed, may cause slower reflexes.
    • Check with your doctor about alternate braking devices for your vehicle, if you experience slower reflexes due to muscle atrophy associated with broken bones, a metal pin in your leg or hip, etc. 
  • Give yourself time to react safely. 
    • Stay at least 3 seconds behind the car in front of you.
    • Anticipate danger. Watch out for other drivers.


You need good vision to drive safely. If you cannot see clearly, you cannot judge distances or spot problems and react appropriately. You also need to see out of the corner of your eye (peripheral vision) to spot cars or objects coming up beside you while you are looking ahead. 

You may see clearly and still not be able to judge distances. You need good distance judgment so you know how far you are from other cars, crosswalks, etc. Many people who may see clearly in the daytime have trouble seeing at night. Some individuals see poorly in low light. Others may have trouble seeing the road in the glare of headlights.

Early detection, through regular and complete eye exams, is the key to protecting your vision. With appropriate treatment, many vision impairments can be minimized, prevented, or slowed; so be sure to make regular appointments with your eye physician.

3 Common Vision Impairments

A cataract clouds the eye’s lens making it harder to see the road, street signs, other cars, and pedestrians. Other signs of a cataract are colors that look faded, objects that look blurry in either bright light or at night, and a more intense reaction to headlight glare.

Macular Degeneration 
Macular degeneration can distort central vision and lead to the loss of sharp vision. People experience the visual effect of macular degeneration in different ways. In its early stages, macular degeneration may create distortion in small central areas of your vision that you may not even notice, and it may not affect your driving. As macular degeneration progresses, it may become harder to see clearly and drive safely. 

Glaucoma can cause partial vision loss or total blindness. Glaucoma usually affects your peripheral vision—the part of your eyesight that lets you see things out of the corner of your eye. It can affect your ability to see other cars, bicyclists, or pedestrians that are outside of your central field of view. 

Safe Driving Tips 

  • Have your eyes checked every 2 years or more often if you notice a rapid change in your vision. You may not know that you have poor peripheral vision or poor distance judgment unless you have your vision checked. 
  • Keep your eye glasses, vehicle windows, mirrors, and headlights clean. 
  • Limit yourself to daytime driving if you are having trouble seeing at night or your eyes have trouble recovering from the glare of oncoming headlights. 
  • Turn your head frequently to compensate for any decreased peripheral vision. 
  • Avoid wearing eyeglasses and sunglasses with wide frames or temples that may restrict your side vision. 
  • If you cannot see over the steering wheel, sit on a cushion or pillow, but make sure you can still reach the gas and brake pedals. 


Hearing is more important to traffic safety than many people realize. The sound of horns, sirens, motorcycles, or screeching tires can warn you of hazards in your driving environment. If you suspect you may be experiencing hearing loss, check with your physician. Some signs and symptoms of hearing loss may include difficulty: 

  • Hearing horns or sirens when the car windows are rolled up. 
  • Hearing the sound of your turn signals when they are on. 
  • Following and participating in a conversation. 
  • Hearing clearly spoken words, even when the words are repeated. 
  • Hearing high-pitched voices or sounds. 

Safe Driving Tips 

  • Have your hearing checked periodically. 
  • If you have hearing loss, even if it is present in both ears, you can usually compensate for it by using your mirrors frequently and scanning your surroundings often (looking ahead, to the sides, and behind your vehicle). 

Cognitive Function

Cognitive function refers to a person’s ability to process incoming information. Cognition is awareness of your surroundings using perception, reasoning, judgment, intuition, and memory. Any cognitive impairment will negatively affect your ability to drive safely. 

Effects of Cognitive Impairments on Senior Drivers

One of the most serious cognitive disorders affecting the older population is dementia. Dementia is frequently unrecognized and undocumented. Unfortunately, before it is recognized, dementia can progress beyond the stage where early treatment may have slowed the course of the disease. Seniors suffering from dementia present a significant challenge to safe driving. Individuals with progressive dementia ultimately lose their ability to drive safely.

Unlike senior drivers with motor function or vision impairments who tend to self-restrict their driving, senior drivers with dementia continue driving even when it is unsafe for them to drive. It is often up to family members and caregivers to stop these seniors from driving and arrange alternative transportation for them. 

Some Causes of Cognitive Impairments

Some of the causes of an individual's cognitive impairment are:

  • Dementia (Alzheimer's disease and other dementia)
  • Seizure disorder (lapse of consciousness condition)
  • Sleep disorders (narcolepsy, sleep apnea, lapse of consciousness condition)
  • Brain tumor
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Stroke
  • Vertigo

The important thing to remember about cognitive impairments is that many of them are progressive. Early diagnosis and treatment are vital to ensure an individual will be able to drive safely for as long as the condition remains mild. Once the condition reaches the moderate or severe stages, it is too dangerous for the person to continue driving. 

NOTE: When a referral or diagnosis for someone with a mild cognitive impairment is received by DMV, Driver Safety will schedule a reexamination. More information regarding the reexamination process.

Medications and Alcohol

Many medications (prescription and over-the-counter) have side effects which may affect your ability to drive safely. Over-the-counter medicines taken for colds and allergies and many prescription medications may make you drowsy. It is your responsibility to know the effects of the medications you take. Be sure to carefully read all medication labels, packaging information, and prescription handouts.

Drinking alcohol impairs your judgment, slows reflexes, distorts decision-making, and hinders coordination. As we age, our tolerance to alcohol decreases, which then increases the risk of alcohol-related driving problems.

Safe Driving Tips

  • If you need to take medication before driving, discuss the effects of the medication with your physician and pharmacist. 
  • If you drink alcohol, do not drive.

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