Driving is associated with higher levels of social participation and better mental health and well-being than travelling as a passenger or by public transport

Driving allows a level of freedom and independence that is often not available with public transport and therefore it is hugely important for social engagement and social participation, both of which lead to improved physical and mental health and wellbeing. However, most of the existing research examines different modes of transport, access to a car or driving cessation on social participation and social wellbeing with little focus on the person who provides the transport. We hypothesised that individuals who drive themselves or are driven by spouses, rather than family or friends, have higher levels of social participation and better psychosocial wellbeing.

In a study published in Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour in July 2019, we used interview data collected in 2009-2011 from 8,092 community-dwelling participants (50 years and older) in The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), a nationally representative cohort study. Most frequent mode of transport was categorised as car (driver), car (driven by spouse/partner), car (driven by family/friends/taxi) or public transport (bus/train). We used regression analysis to examine associations of transport mode and current driving status with social network strength (Berkman Syme Index), monthly involvement in active social leisure activities and volunteering, depressive symptoms (CES-D), loneliness (UCLA Loneliness scale) and quality of life (CASP-19).

Most adults aged 50 and over in Ireland drive most frequently themselves (72.2%) with 11.7% and 5.9% relying on lifts from family/friends/taxi and a spouse/partner respectively. Public transport use varies widely by location from 1.9% in rural areas to 23.3% in Dublin. Driving, being driven by a partner/spouse and taking public transport are associated with greater social networks, higher levels of social participation, lower depressive symptoms and better quality of life, compared to being driven by family, friends or taking taxis, with the greatest benefits observed for drivers. Adults who have reduced their levels of driving and particularly, non-drivers or those who have stopped driving report fewer social networks, lower social participation, higher depressive symptoms and loneliness and lower quality of life, compared to current drivers.

Ideally, older adults would be supported to drive for as long as it is safe for them to do so and for as long as they would like to do so. However, many people drive less frequently or stop driving as they get older, and this can be a huge upheaval especially if this change is not by choice. Early planning and the availability of suitable alternative means of transport are vital to facilitate this transition from driving to not driving. Family and friends play a hugely important role in providing transport for older adults allowing them to complete many daily activities and to maintain their social networks. However, some older adults are reluctant to ask others for lifts so they prioritise the ‘essential’ trips such as grocery shopping or healthcare visits rather than the discretionary or social trips, which are also very important for mental health and quality of life. As the population ages, there is an increasing need for improved transport networks and the provision of local amenities and services that meet the specific needs of older adults, allowing them to maintain their independence and social activities.

TILDA is funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, the Department of Health and Irish Life plc.

Guest blog by Dr Orna Donoghue, The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

Donoghue OA, McGarrigle CA, Kenny RA. (2019) Who’s in the driver’s seat? Impact on social participation and psychosocial wellbeing in adults aged 50 and over. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 64: 522-531.


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