Perhaps you’ve been worried that your driving skills are declining. Or you feel you’re doing fine, but a friend or family member has expressed concern. Don’t just worry and wonder. First, learn about the three levels of driving ability. Then, use our tools to assess your skills in each area.
The 3 levels of driving ability
Driving is not a single skill, but a combination of many skills and abilities. These skills fall into three categories: operational, tactical and strategic.
- At the base level, there are the operational abilities. These are the physical components of driving, which after many decades of driving become automatic. We can steer, brake and use controls without thinking too much about it. It is “motor memory” like “riding a bike!”
Operational abilities are ingrained over many years of repetition and are usually only lost as a result of a physical problem (such as failing vision). Many operational problems can be remedied with new technologies; backup cameras and blindside warning lights can alert drivers with restricted neck mobility to cars around them. For example, blindside warning lights can also help compensate for reduced peripheral vision or decreased neck mobility.
- At the second level, there are the tactical abilities. This refers to your ability to execute maneuvers on the road, such as changing lanes, following road signs, being in the correct lane to turn right or left, slowing in response to traffic in front of you, etc.
Regular driving helps keep tactical abilities sharp, and keeps drivers familiar with the traffic patterns and changes in their area. It’s important to stay informed about new developments and rules of the road. For instance, if a roundabout is installed to replace a traffic light in your area, you must familiarize yourself with the rules of using roundabouts.
- Finally, at the top level, there are the strategic abilities. This refers to your ability to make smart decisions based on your own skills when unexpected situations occur, such as changing weather conditions, etc. For example, if you know that night driving in the rain presents problems for you, you may make the strategic decision to take a cab or a rideshare service on a rainy night; if a road is closed, your strategic ability allows you to regroup and find a new route home; or if in an unfamiliar place, you can make the strategic decision to use your GPS or a map to get you to your destination.
While all three skills levels are important for driving and change with age, the strategic level is affected first when a person has changes in their cognitive ability. Getting lost in a familiar area or not knowing which way to turn at an intersection are important “red flags” or signs that your driving fitness is affected. It’s important to get in touch with the right expert to discuss these problems and discover what is causing them. Many times there are actions that can be taken to help you keep driving.
Driving skills vs. Driving fitness
Older adults, with their many years of experience, are generally good drivers with the skills to drive safely. They have excellent “operational skills” because they have driven so long. And they are familiar with the rules of the road around their driving area.
However, “driving fitness” refers to having the physical, cognitive and visual capabilities to appropriately control a motor vehicle while following the rules of the road; this fitness is affected by aging. Many of us have bad driving habits—not signaling when changing lanes, for example, or driving a little too fast—and while these errors may get us in trouble, they are not considered a factor in determining driving fitness.
Unfortunately, with medical conditions or as we age, our slower processing speed affects our driving fitness. We may try to compensate by slowing down, but when we drive 15-20 miles per hour slower than everyone else, we put ourselves at risk for crashes.
As a person’s processing speed slows or a medical condition advances, you or your family member may see some driver behavior warning signs or “red flags.” Initially, these signs may be minor, like more people honking their horns, or hitting the curbs more often. It is important to consider the frequency and severity of these behaviors. Getting a moving violation from a police officer, getting lost in a familiar place, or confusing the gas and brake pedals are more significant and warrant attention.
The Center for Mature Market Excellence of Hartford Insurance has researched and developed a list of warning signs for drivers with dementia that ranks the signs from minor to serious.
Assess your readiness for mobility transition
Why do I need to know about my readiness to drive? Everyone is different. How individuals react to changes are different. This questionnaire is designed to measure your emotional and attitudinal readiness to cope with present and future mobility change that comes with advancing age. The feedback you will receive may assist you and your family to understand how you are feeling and offer some suggestions to assist you in your transportation planning.