You have always prided yourself on being a good driver. You’ve always been careful with consuming alcohol before getting behind the wheel; you know your limits and you err on the side of caution. You’ve had a safe driving record for the past 50 years—only an occasional speeding ticket. You’ve never had a DUI, never been arrested.
One night, you go to a restaurant with friends and you have the same glass of your favorite wine that you’ve enjoyed for years—the same glass of wine you’ve always been able to enjoy without it affecting your driving ability. But on your way home, you see a policeman’s lights in your rearview mirror. You pull over; the officer tells you that you were weaving, asks for your license and registration, then asks you to get out of the car. Before you realize what’s happening, you’ve been arrested on suspicion of DUI.
How did this happen? You’re always so careful.
More likely than not, it’s your age.
As we get older, our bodies and minds naturally become less responsive behind the wheel, and more sensitive to substances we put in our bodies. The point at which a person can no longer drive safely is different for everyone, and of course the state can’t revoke your license on the basis of age. But aging has a definite effect on our driving skills, and in many cases our ability to metabolize alcohol.
By the Numbers
While it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact age at which driving becomes unsafe, the statistics do point to certain patterns. The CDC gives us a closer look into the dilemma:
• In 2015, 6,800 older adults were killed in automobile accidents, accounting for nearly 18 percent of the more than 38,000 deaths overall, according to Newsweek.
• Over a quarter million older drivers went to the emergency room for accident-related injuries in 2015—amounting to 712 injuries per day on average.
• Based on the fatality rates per age group, adults age 70-74 begin to see a significant increased risk, peaking around age 85.
How Age Affects Driving Ability
A number of factors come into play which can reduce our safety behind the wheel as we age. For instance:
• Stiff muscles and joints—Arthritis and other ailments may make it more difficult to turn a wheel, turn your head or react quickly when the situation calls for it.
• Vision and hearing—If you need glasses and don’t wear them—or if your current prescription isn’t up to date—you might miss important visual cues or fail to see danger in front of you. Glaucoma or macular degeneration can enhance this effect. Likewise, if you’re hearing impaired and miss a car horn honking, you would wind up in a collision.
• Reaction times—As we age, we naturally respond more slowly. You may see an imminent collision but be unable to avoid it because you couldn’t react quickly enough.
• Mental processes—Age can also affect the reasoning, memory and logic centers of the brain. We lovingly refer to these instances as “senior moments,” but at their worst they can cause disorientation and danger behind the wheel—ranging from general confusion to momentarily forgetting how to stop the vehicle.
The Effects of Medications
Most older adults take an increased regimen of medications as they age, adding additional uncertainty to the mix. Many medicines have warnings that their side effects include drowsiness, warning patients not to drive or operate heavy machinery while using the drug. However, medicines can also interact with one another in an infinite number of ways to create similar effects behind the wheel. Many medicines may also enhance the effects of alcohol, making you able to tolerate less, or causing the impact per drink to be greater. That glass of wine you’ve had each night for years may affect you much differently when accompanied by the wrong “cocktail” of medications.
Age and Alcohol Consumption
All these other issues aside, the fact is that we have a more difficult time metabolizing alcohol as we get older. You could be in otherwise optimal health, taking no additional medications, with no visible signs of slowing down, but the older you get, the less tolerant your system will be of that nightly glass of wine.
The New York Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) offers some helpful information on this topic, confirming that our response to alcohol changes with age for three primary reasons:
1. We carry less water in our bodies, which means alcohol levels become more concentrated.
2. We are more sensitive to alcohol and less tolerant of it overall.
3. Our gastrointestinal tract is less able to metabolize alcohol, so more of it enters our bloodstream.
As a result of these physical changes, the older we get, the less alcohol it takes to bring us to a BAC level of 0.08 (the legal DUI limit in California). In addition, according to OASAS, this dynamic is even more pronounced in women than in men. In short—you simply can’t drink as much as you used to drink without becoming intoxicated, and the older you get, the less alcohol you’ll be able to “handle.”
Staying Safe as You Age
Here’s the good news if you’ve had a recent wake-up call regarding your age and driving abilities: Depending on the circumstances, by living healthy and acting wisely, you may actually have years of safe driving still ahead of you. You might just have to make some adjustments as you age. Let’s look at some common-sense tips:
• Allow for greater response times on the road. If you notice your reaction times are slowing, put more distance between you and other drivers (not unlike driving in raining weather) so you have more time to respond.
• Avoid driving in inclement weather. Rain, fog or snowy conditions may be more of a challenge for you at this point. Err on the side of caution and stay home, or let someone else do the driving.
• Exercise your mind. Brain training can help you stay more alert overall, and it can also help keep your driving skills sharp. AARP offers some helpful information on this topic.
• Be honest and accountable. Consider talking to a trusted family member about your driving; ask that person to hold you to account if he sees any warning signs about your driving habits.
• When you drink—let someone else drive. You probably don’t have to give up your nightly glass of wine (unless your doctor says so, of course); just don’t assume you’re safe to drive after having it.
If you need compassionate legal representation for a recent DUI charge, we are always here to help. Call our offices for a consultation.