Eyesight by age 4 min read

Common vision problems seniors face when driving

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Poor vision has a more significant impact on seniors than younger drivers: It’s harder to see at night, road signs are fuzzy, and even reading gauges on the dashboard can be a challenge.

How vision changes as we age

From age 40, a person’s vision can get up to three times worse with each decade of their life, the Vision Impact Institute says. 

At 50, two-thirds of people are visually impaired, and 82% of all blind people are aged 50 or older, according to WHO. 

For people aged 65 and over, age-related diseases and conditions reduce visual function by nearly one-fourth, according to the Vision Impact Institute. 

By age 75, older drivers are twice as likely as younger drivers to be killed at T-junctions, according to the Older Drivers Task Force in the United Kingdom. 

For every mile driven, drivers 80 and over face a risk of being killed, that’s ten times greater than the lowest-risk age group, 40-49 year-olds. Part of that risk relates to the increasing frailness of people over 80. 

Not surprisingly, as vision problems increase, many seniors self-regulate when and where they drive, choosing to limit their car trips to daytime and familiar localities. Poor vision is often the deciding factor when seniors decide to stop driving. 

What vision conditions can affect a senior’s ability to drive? 

Age-related eye diseases and conditions such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, high blood pressure and diabetes can reduce visual function by nearly 25% among people 65 and older, according to Fundación MAPFRE.  

Other common vision problems for seniors include blurred vision, loss of peripheral vision, loss of central vision, and difficulty driving at night or in bright sunlight. 

Night driving is especially challenging for seniors for several reasons, according to researchers in a Harvard study, Blinded by the Light. Pupil size shrinks from a diameter of about 5 millimetres to about 3 millimetres for seniors. 

Smaller pupils mean less light can enter the eye. At night, the effect is comparable to wearing sunglasses — not a good idea after dark. 

Changes in the retina also make night vision worse: Older eyes have fewer roll cells, photoreceptors in the retina, which are essential to good night vision. 

Cataracts

With age, the lens of the eye becomes less transparent, allowing less light to pass through leading to blurred vision and difficulty with glare and seeing at night. When this condition worsens, it’s called a cataract. 

Close-up of a cataract

Cataracts, something most people over 60 will face, reduce the ability to recognise road signs by 30%, increasing the risk of hitting road hazards by 2.5 times, and lengthening the time to complete a driving course by 8%, according to an Australian study

Blurred vision 

Blurred vision can be caused by age-related macular degeneration, cataracts or just the unmet need for glasses. Research in Europe found that nearly 5% of drivers aged 64 to 75 had limited visual acuity, increasing to 13% for drivers over 75. 

Globally, 37% of seniors have uncorrected vision (refractive blur) and would benefit from glasses, according to an Essilor/Boston Consulting Group study.

In the Australian study, drivers wearing goggles that simulated refractive blur recognised fewer road signs and hit more road hazards than drivers with normal vision. Although that study focused on nighttime driving, blurred vision also leads to issues with daytime driving. 

Loss of visual field 

Four out of 10 drivers aged 75 and over suffer from a smaller visual field. That limited useful field of view makes it harder to merge, exit and navigate curves in the road, according to the Essilor/Boston Consulting Group study. 

Glaucoma, which causes a gradual – often undetected – loss of peripheral vision, is one culprit in a shrinking visual field. 

Age-related macular degeneration also causes a shrinking visual field. In this case, the shrinking starts in the centre with a loss of central vision as a blind spot forms and begins to grow. 

Solving vision problems for seniors 

As we age, our vision can make it a challenge to drive, especially at night. Here are some ways to solve vision problems most people face after 40:

Get regular eye exams: Your optician can detect and treat vision conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration, and prescribe glasses, contact lenses or sunglasses to help you see when driving, cycling and walking around your city and home. 

Embrace car technology: The latest cars are often equipped with devices that warn drivers about lane weaving, imminent collisions and nearby pedestrians helping improve your reaction time when driving. 

Ask for a ride: As vision problems worsen, use public transit more – catch a bus or train – and ask for a ride from a child, grandchild or friend. Think of it as a great way to bond while heading to the store or doctor’s appointment.

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