Driving at Night Becomes More Difficult Beginning as Soon as Your Late 20s — Here’s How to Improve Nighttime Vision

You are not alone if you feel wary about getting behind the wheel after the sun sets. According to Gitnux, a market research platform, 10% of drivers reported having difficulty with vision at night, while 62% feel less confident driving at night compared to during the day.

Those concerns are justified given that around 40% of accidents happen either during early morning hours or at night, and those crashes are twice as likely to be fatal as accidents in the daytime.

Nighttime driving can become more difficult due to age-related eye conditions as we age. Here, specialists in eye care explain the common causes of vision problems throughout the years and offer strategies for driving safely at night.

What do aging eyes have difficulty seeing in darkness?

Although it may sound surprising, vision changes affecting driving at night can begin as early as one’s late 20s to early 30s. “Over the last 20 years, we have seen a massive shift, with eye dryness being one of the major problems that starts to happen in young adults,” said Dr. Mile Brujic, optometrist, Bausch + Lomb adviser, and partner of Premier Vision Group in Ohio.

A culprit might be numerous hours spent staring at digital devices and computer screens. “The tear film is the very first surface the light hits before it enters the eye,” explains Brujic. If it’s not pristine—if there are dry spots in the tear film—it can actually disrupt the quality of your vision.”

Dry eye is a condition during which the eyes don’t produce enough tears and make the eye feel scratchy or burn — it affects millions of Americans. According to the National Institutes of Health, it is more common in adults older than 50. “It worsens with age and can cause the vision to be blurred, especially when people are tired,” said vice chair of education for the NYU Langone Department of Ophthalmology, Dr. Christina Prescott.

Adults in their early to mid-40s will likely start to lose their ability to focus up close, such as reading a book, a restaurant menu, or a food label. Brujic says the condition is known as presbyopia. “There are certain individuals who come into office in a bit of denial about having mild to moderate levels of presbyopia,” says Brujic. “Some might feel like this issue doesn’t need to be corrected, but presbyopia fatigues the eyes throughout the day. Then, because the eyes are working so hard, it can inadvertently affect the distance vision as well.”

Ophthalmologist and medical reviewer at All About Vision, Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, said another standard age-related change that affects driving at night is cataracts, a condition in which “the natural, internal lens develops cloudiness.” He states, “This condition can cause lights in the dark — such as car headlights or streetlights — to become very bright, along with having glare and halos, making it hard to see at nighttime.”

Although cataracts are most common among the elderly, the NIH reports that the process starts around age 40, when a clump of proteins breaks down in the eye and forms a cloudy lens area. In fact, the American Academy of Opthalmology states that over 20 million Americans over 40 are affected by cataracts.

Two additional eye conditions that are commonly age-related that can interfere with driving at night include age-related macular degeneration (AMD, a disease of the macula portion of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue located in the back of the eye) and glaucoma (a disease that damages the optic nerve).

“Macular degeneration primarily affects central vision and has more of an effect on reading, yet it can affect driving vision in the later stages,” Prescott explains. However, glaucoma is actually the most dangerous in terms of driving since it affects peripheral vision—and often, people are not aware of the loss of peripheral vision until it is too late.”

According to the AAO, AMD is the leading cause of adult vision loss over the age of 50, while glaucoma is the leading cause of adult blindness over the age of 60. “Keep in mind that most of these charges occur gradually over many years,” Prescott says. “Most people start to notice changes with reading vision in the 40s, and then changes with driving vision usually occur in the 60s or early 70s.”

Is night blindness the same as having difficulty driving at night?

No. “This is one of the most confused terms used among the general population,” Brujic says. He also says when we enter a dark environment, the students naturally dilate to allow more light to enter the eye. “When the pupils enlarge, it exposes any type of imperfections in our optical system, which can also lead to a reduction in visual quality in the evening. This is a normal shift in the eyes that can often be corrected with the right prescription.” 

On the other hand, night blindness, sometimes called nyctalopia, is a condition in which someone loses the ability or has extreme difficulty seeing in dimly lit or dark areas. “One of the more common eye conditions that can cause night blindness is called retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, and this affects the eye in a way that makes patients literally blind at night.”

According to the NIH, retinitis pigmentosa is a genetic disease whose symptoms often appear in childhood.

Strategies to improve night vision

All specialists agree that partnering with a physician is crucial to better driving at night. “The starting point is the coordination of care between the person who is experiencing the symptoms and their eye health care provider,” Brujic says.

Prescott recommends getting an eye exam “since most of the eye conditions that contribute to trouble with night driving are treatable.” Boxer Wachler says if your doctor advises you wear contact lenses or prescription glasses, be certain to wear them.

According to Brujic, anyone who has dry eyes should also follow the 20/20/20 rule. “For every 20 minutes of looking at a computer screen, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away. “This actually helps calibrate the eyes since we have learned through research that not only do we blink less frequently when we stare at screens, but we blink less completely.” 

Using artificial tears following a long day of screen time might also help reestablish vision, Boxer Wachler adds. 

Regarding night driving, Boxer Wachler recommends not looking directly into oncoming headlights. “Instead, glance slightly to the right side,” he said.

According to reports from the American Optometric Association (AOA), many drivers complain about the glare from high-intensity discharge (HID) and light-emitting diode (LED) headlights. While research indicates these bright lights don’t cause disability glare—a glare that blocks the object from view—they can cause discomfort glare, which doesn’t block the view but does cause eye discomfort. Additionally, this glare can exacerbate any preexisting eye conditions.

A few of the AOA’s tips for nighttime driving include:

  • Use fog lamps instead of high beams when driving during foggy nights.
  • Turn down dashboard lights to reduce glare.
  • When bright headlights are oncoming, ease off the gas and maintain your position on the road by monitoring the lane marking until the vehicle passes.
  • Wear prescription glasses that have an anti-reflection coating.
  • Aim dashboard vents away from the face to keep the eyes from getting dried out.
  • Keep blinking while driving to ward off dry eye symptoms.
  • Clean your windshield outside and inside. 

Continue to blink while driving to keep dry eye symptoms away.