On Becoming an Older Driver


altshul headshotSara Altshul
AGS Staff Writer

I didn’t run right out and get my driver’s license on my 16th birthday, like so many of my high school pals did. In my rural hometown, a car was more necessity than luxury. Town was three miles away, school even further.

But my overprotective mom was reluctant to let me learn how to drive on her new manual-shift Saab. Instead, she chauffeured me wherever I wanted to go, and if I wanted to get somewhere when she wasn’t around, I walked or got a ride.

I finally got my license at 18, a few months before landing the coolest summer job of all time – as a Good Humor truck driver. Soon, I bought myself a $500 Simca, a tiny four-door French beauty whose battery was tied on with a shoelace. I had it for years before it literally fell apart.

Since then, I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles. Two cars I owned during my 40’s topped out at nearly 200,000 miles each. For the three years I lived there, I even zipped through the Italian countryside, up hills and through narrow, cobblestoned streets, in my second-hand, four-on-the-floor Mitsubishi. Coming to a stop on Tuscan hills in first gear took plenty of practice. Just ask my husband.

Thankfully, I’ve never had a crash and despite a speeding ticket or two over the years, my driving record is pristine.

I’m 66 now. My faculties are sharp and intact. But when I’m driving, I recognize that I have to be more conscious, more focused, and more alert than my younger self ever was. I exert a deliberate effort when I’m behind the wheel: I don’t pass as frequently, I don’t go as fast, and I don’t take chances like I may have done in the past. I am acutely aware of keeping myself, and my passengers, safe on the road.

To that end, I’ve learned how to find alternatives to a few scary intersections in my neighborhood, those with blind spots and tricky left turns.

And I’m dependent on my GPS system to get to unfamiliar places—though I sometimes find it hard to concentrate while listening to a disembodied voice saying, “In 1000 feet, turn right.” How should I know how far 1,000 feet is? And if I glance at the device’s map for even a moment, I lose focus on the road ahead.

Along with the GPS, my cellphone competes for my attention. Its Bluetooth links to my music, but it’s distracting to find what I want while I’m driving. It’s equally distracting to accept a phone call via the car’s quirky entertainment system.

So I play it safe: I look at maps online before I travel unfamiliar routes, so I’m not taken by surprise by GPS directions. I pre-program my music before I get behind the wheel, and I let most phone calls go to voice mail.

I’m also cautious about the type of weather I drive in—I stay home when it’s snowy or icy, and I try not to drive at night in the pouring rain. I leave extra time to get places I’m not familiar with so I don’t stress out about being late.

The most serious age-related compensation I’ve made, however, is drinking. Back in the day, I confess to being a little careless about driving after cocktails or wine-enhanced meals. I fancied myself a good enough driver to overcome any fuzziness. Now, I know better. I limit myself to one glass of wine, sipped with dinner, or I make sure my evening plans include a designated driver.  I’m looking forward to the future day that I can go back to enjoying having a drink before driving – in my self-driving car!