How Aging Eyesight Can Affect Driving

Common vision problems can make it harder to drive as you age, especially at night.

An eye test is an important safety check for driving.

Peakstock / Shutterstock

A driver’s eyesight is critical in preventing car crashes, because nearly all the sensory input you need to drive a car comes from visual cues. If your eyesight is diminished, so is your ability to drive safely. This is especially true for senior drivers.

That’s why most states require motorists to undergo vision tests as part of the driver’s license renewal process. Depending on where you live, you may have a vision test in person at a state licensing office or submit results of a vision test performed by an eye doctor.

Challenges of Driving at Night

When behind the wheel, your vision is the most important tool you have. But by age 60, eyes need three times as much light to see as they did at age 20, so it’s much more difficult to see objects in the dark. If you have vision problems, driving at night can be particularly hazardous.

Research shows senior drivers need significantly more light to see than teen drivers. That’s because over the years, pupils get smaller and don’t dilate as much in dark conditions, which makes it harder to see. This diminished vision is a significant problem for many drivers.

Your vision may test well in the eye doctor’s office but still be limited when driving at night, where lighting is poor and more complex visual tasks are required. The ability to resist glare and see reflective road signs and markings also decreases with age, so senior drivers should take extra care when driving at night.

Common Vision Problems

Vision, like other senses, gradually declines over time. As you age, your useful field of view gets smaller and you no longer see everything that may be a safety risk. Because changes may be hard to notice, it’s important to have annual vision tests to look out for common vision problems such as:

  • Myopia, or nearsightedness. Nearsightedness runs in families and usually appears in childhood, and it can affect senior drivers as well as sometimes worsening with age. Nearsighted people have difficulty reading highway signs and seeing other objects at a distance, but can usually see well for tasks such as reading or sewing. Nearsightedness may be corrected with glasses, contact lenses, or eye surgery. People with myopia may need to wear glasses or contact lenses all the time or only for tasks that require detailed distance vision, such as driving.

  • Hyperopia, or farsightedness. People with hyperopia can see distant objects very well, but have difficulty focusing on objects that are close. For senior drivers, farsightedness can be corrected with glasses or contact lenses to change the way light rays bend into the eyes. If your eyewear prescription begins with plus numbers, like +2.50, you are farsighted and may need to wear glasses or contacts all the time or only when reading, working on a computer, or doing other close-up work.

  • Glaucoma. This common problem is a buildup of pressure in the eye, which can interfere with the transmission of visual information to the brain. Untreated or uncontrolled glaucoma can eventually lead to a reduced ability to see at the edges of your vision (peripheral vision). Progressive eye damage due to glaucoma could lead to blindness.

  • Macular degeneration. Also called age-related macular degeneration or AMD, macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness among Americans age 65 and older. AMD is degeneration of the macula, which is the part of the retina responsible for the sharp, central vision needed to read or drive.

  • Cataracts. Cataracts are the most common cause of vision loss in people over age 40 and the main cause of blindness in the world. They affect the eye’s natural lens, which can make your vision appear cloudy.

If you have trouble with your vision or notice a change in what you’re able to see while you’re driving, it’s best to go to an optometrist to get a vision test.