Older motorists + poor vision = Formula for distracted driving

Rachel Hartman
Distracted driving is not just a teen thing.
Older drivers – specifically those placed into a high-crash risk category based on a vision test – are  more likely to have driving problems related to distractions in the car, according to a study in the April 2012 issue of Optometry and Vision Science, the journal of the American Academy of Optometry.
The study’s participants were 92 motorists ranging from 65 to 88 years old. Each driver underwent a “Useful Field of View” (UFOV) test, which measures the area over which someone can gain information in a single glance without moving his or her head or eyes.
After completing the UFOV test, drivers completed a closed-course driving test three times. The first time there were no distractions in the car; the following two times, however, motorists faced visual and hearing distractions while behind the wheel. These distractions consisted of simple math problems presented on a video screen or audio speaker.
Drivers ranked as higher-risk on the UFOV test demonstrated the poorest driving performance in the presence of distractions, according to the study’s researchers. The study was led by Joanne Wood of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.
Distraction dangers
While seniors may not fall into the trap of texting while driving – an act often attributed to the younger crowd – they may become distracted while talking on a cellphone, says Michele Harris, director of traffic safety at the AAA Auto Club South in Tampa, Fla. “Some people think talking on a hands-free phone limits the distraction involved while driving, but the act of engaging in a conversation still pulls our mind from the road,” she says.
As noted in the Queensland study, older drivers with vision limitations may be more affected by distractions. A person’s field of vision tends to decline with age; as a result, in a single glance, an older driver may take in images placed only in the middle of a scene and may not detect objects on the outer edges of the field of vision. This reduction makes it more difficult for drivers to notice road hazards early enough to avoid them.
Fortunately, a motorist’s field of vision often can be improved with simple training activities. One method, a software program offered through AAA called DriveSharp, includes three basic exercises designed to sharpen driving skills. The program has been shown to enhance the useful field of view by up to 200 percent after just 10 hours of training.
Reducing distractions
In addition to increasing the field of vision, senior drivers can take the following steps to reduce distractions on the road:
1. Get a driving buddy. Older drivers should consider inviting a friend along for the ride, says Frank Darras, an insurance attorney in California. “Have somebody else in the car who can read maps and signs, and look up addresses,”  he says.
2. Turn off the phone. Switch your cellphone to silent mode before getting in the car or put it in the trunk before driving, says Julie Lee, vice president and national director of AARP Driver Safety.
3. Make sure the car fits. “Ask, ‘Is the vehicle really senior-friendly?’”  Darras says. Check to see whether the driver’s seat can be moved up to maintain a proper lookout; if not, use a cushion to boost the driver and improve the driver’s view. Also, make sure the dashboard features easy-to-read dials and gauges, Darras says.
4. Be on the lookout for others. “If you see a driver who you suspect is ‘under the influence’ of distractions, change lanes or pull over to let him or her pass you,” Lee says.
Auto insurance and distractions
To get a refresher on driving skills and learn about the importance of reducing distractions, older drivers can take a class such as the AARP Driver Safety course. In some states, completing a safety course can lead to auto insurance discounts.
In addition, senior drivers should be aware of the following when it comes to auto insurance:

  • Look at the mileage. If you're a driver who's retired, your annual mileage may be greatly reduced since you're no longer driving back and forth to work, says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of MoneyCrashers.com, a personal finance website. The reduced number of miles logged could lead to lower insurance rates.
  • Consider safe driver discounts. If you don’t drive after dark, check with your insurer to see whether a discount is available, Schrage says. In addition, be sure to mention the safety features on your vehicle, such as an anti-theft device, anti-lock brakes and air bags.
  • Know your car. Insurance rates for vehicles can vary greatly, depending on the make and model. A sports car will cost more to insure than a sedan, for instance.

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