09/19/2014 10:53 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Life, Behind the Wheel

Earlier this year, I bought a new car for the first time in many years. The process was exciting, but also a little overwhelming. My husband and I spent several weeks exploring the latest features and talking through what was most important to us. Ultimately, we decided on a car that is a perfect fit.

Going through this process made it even more clear to me how much the driving experience has changed. It felt like just about everything was different since the last time we purchased a car. The last go-around we were impressed by automatic windows and a sunroof. Now, we had to decide which dashboard infotainment system we preferred, if we needed a backup camera, and if we wanted a hybrid car.

While the features we were reviewing were brand new to us, our reason for needing the car was the same as it's always been. Like many Americans, we live in the suburbs and we rely on our vehicle to get us to the grocery store, doctor, and work, and to keep us connected to our friends and family.

This experience forced my husband and me to reflect on how important driving is to us and it turns out, we are not alone.

According to a new AARP Driver Safety survey, conducted in a handful of states across the country including California, New York and Texas, nearly 100 percent of drivers over the age of 50 rely upon driving to stay connected to their communities and critical services.

A significant number of drivers also reported being aware of mind-body changes as they age. Many of these individuals agreed that they cannot see as well as they used to while driving at night. A lot of drivers also reported feeling like their reaction time behind the wheel has slowed--something that can indeed be improved upon with practice.

I'm regularly confronted with stereotypes about older drivers being unsafe, but I think this survey paints a different picture. Older drivers are in fact some of the most conscientious drivers on the road. Even though survey respondents noted mind-body changes, they are very willing or are currently taking steps to keep their skills fresh or self-regulate. And when asked about the rules of the road, respondents overwhelming answered correctly.

The reality is, even if you're well aware of changes to the driving landscape or your own body, a refresh of driving skills is beneficial at any age. We take our vehicles in for regular maintenance, why not do the same for ourselves? After all, aren't we the most important part of the driving experience?

Here are a few tips that we share in our Smart Driver curriculum:
  • If driving at night or in the rain is becoming more difficult, consider postponing your trip, or choosing an alternate route.
  • Choose roads that are well lit, and avoid looking directly into the headlights of approaching vehicles. Instead, look slightly to the right.
  • Always make sure your windshield, mirrors, windows (inside and out), headlights, and tail lights are clean.
  • Eliminate distractions inside your vehicle. That means putting your cellphone in the backseat and staying focused on the cars around you.

As I use my new car to run errands, visit family and friends, and get to work, I'm reminded just how important driving is for many Americans, whether they're behind the wheel of a vintage model or a car that was just rolled out at the Auto Show. There's a flexibility that driving gives us and we can all take steps to preserve that flexibility for as long as possible by remaining safe and capable behind the wheel.

What does driving mean to you? We encourage you to look for a Smart Driver course in your community to find people in your community who are equally passionate about driving. A little refresh can go a long way.