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Safe driving: How health issues, medications and more can affect you on the road
Your health can have a big impact on how well you drive. Get expert tips so you can stay safe.
When you’re behind the wheel of a car, safe driving is important. Having a driver’s license means you know the rules of the road. But putting on your blinker when you turn and stopping at red lights is only part of what it takes to be a safe driver.
Your health can also play an important role in how well you drive.1 Here’s a look at some of the health issues and other factors that can affect driving at any age. Learn what steps you can take to stay safe on the road.
Safety issue: Vision problems
People of all ages may have trouble seeing while driving. It goes without saying that if you need glasses or contacts to see the road, you must wear them.2
Eyesight problems also become more common as people age. Age-related conditions in older adults include:2
- Glaucoma (a group of eye diseases that can cause vision loss and even blindness)
- Cataracts (a cloudy area in the lens of your eye)
- Macular degeneration (an eye disease that can blur your central vision)
What you can do: Make your eye health a priority. Regular exams can help detect any vision problems that may be developing.3
“Sometimes people don’t realize that they’re not able to read certain [street] signs until they have the actual regular vision check,” says Sarah Kent, MD. She’s a family medicine physician with USMD in Cross Roads, Texas.
Eye experts generally recommend having your vision checked every one to two years.4,5 What’s right for you depends on your age, family history and personal eye health. Do you wear contact lenses? See your eye doctor once a year to make sure your prescription is accurate.4
Safety issue: Hearing loss
Hearing loss can affect your ability to drive well. For example, you may not hear a car honk at you on the road. And it can happen for a variety of reasons, including:6
- Ear infections
- Health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure
- Listening to loud music
- Medications that treat severe infections, cancer and heart disease
- Putting objects in your ear (including cotton swabs)
What you can do: Your ears deserve your attention. The signs of early hearing loss can be gradual and subtle. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:7
- Do you often ask people to repeat themselves?
- Do you struggle to hear people in loud restaurants or public spaces?
- Do you have ringing in your ears?
Notice these symptoms? You’ll want to talk to your doctor. And even if you don’t notice signs of a problem, it’s a good idea to have your hearing checked at your physical.7
Safety issue: Medication side effects
Prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause side effects that make it dangerous to drive. These include drowsiness, nausea and blurred vision, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.8
Some medicines include an explicit warning against driving while taking them. But it’s still good to be aware of which medications are considered riskier. These include:8
- Muscle relaxants
- Sleep medicines
- Some cold and allergy medicines
- Some antidepressants
- Anxiety medications
- Opioid pain relievers
- Antidiarrheal medicines
- Medicines for motion sickness
- Antipsychotic drugs
- Anti-seizure drugs
What you can do: Read the labels on your medicines so you are aware of the side effects. If you think a drug makes you sleepy, lightheaded or unfocused, tell your doctor. They may be able to switch you to a different medication or lower the dose.
Safety issue: Distracted driving
Driving involves a lot of split-second decision-making. It’s harder to react quickly when you’re distracted.
Being on your smartphone is a perfect example. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes away from the road for five seconds, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.9 And that increases your chances of a crash. This is true for teen drivers and adults.
For older drivers, the ability to react quickly also naturally slows down.1 It’s part of the aging process. Are you having a really hard time reacting on the road? Or, have you gotten into a bunch of minor accidents recently? It may be time to consider stopping driving or having someone else drive you.
What you can do: To safely drive anywhere, you’ll need to cut down on those distractions. Save typing or reading texts for when your vehicle is in park. And if you can stop for lunch or dinner, do so. Eating while driving can be distracting. Listening to the radio or streaming music? Stick with the station you’re on or have the person in your passenger seat change it if need be.
Safety issue: Certain health conditions
Some health conditions can limit your ability to drive. Migraines are an example.10 Before and after a migraine, you can feel tired and have trouble concentrating. During a migraine you can experience sensitivity to light and sound, as well as feel nauseous and dizzy.
Neuropathy, or nerve damage, is another cause for concern for drivers. There are different reasons people get this condition. But it often causes a loss of sensation in the hands or feet.11
“If you can’t feel your feet on the pedals, then you’re more at risk of not knowing where they are and pushing the wrong one,” says Nancy Swayze, MD. She’s the chief of skilled nursing facilities at Reliant Medical Group, part of Optum, in Worcester, Massachusetts. It can be tough to turn the steering wheel if you can’t feel it with your hands.
Other health issues or conditions that can impact your ability to drive safely include:12
These conditions and diseases can impact your ability to control your movements, reduce your coordination or slow down your reaction time.
What you can do: Having a health condition doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t drive. But be sure to talk with your doctor, especially if you or family members are worried. “If you’ve ever had heart conditions or seizures, those are things that your doctor should know about,” says Dr. Kent.
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- National Institutes of Health, News in Health. Safe Driving. Published June 2020. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- National Institute on Aging. Aging and Your Eyes. Last reviewed July 28, 2021. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Keep an Eye on Your Vision Health. Last reviewed October 1, 2020. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- American Optometric Association. Comprehensive eye exams. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- American Academy of Opthalmology. Eye exam and vision testing basics. Last reviewed March 8, 2022. Accessed October 21, 2023.
- National Institute on Aging. Hearing Loss: A Common Problem for Older Adults. Last reviewed January 19, 2023. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Do I Know if I Have Hearing Loss Caused by Loud Noises? Last reviewed August 24, 2021. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some Medicines and Driving Don’t Mix. Last reviewed March 9, 2021. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted Driving. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- Headache. The Influence of Migraine on Driving: Current Understanding, Future Directions, and Potential Implications of Findings. Published January 2020. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Peripheral Neuropathy. Last reviewed March 13, 2023. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- National Institute on Aging. Safe Driving for Older Adults. Last reviewed December 20, 2023. Accessed September 28, 2023.
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