How do you know when it’s time for your loved one to limit or stop driving? It’s a tough subject for most families, but it’s a serious matter. While many older adults value the independence of driving, changes that happen with age can alter a person’s ability to drive safely. Read this article to learn more about the different factors that can affect driving as you age and signs of when it may be time to give up driving.
There are a variety of possible reasons for driving skills to be impacted by the aging process. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) has identified some of the most common ones:
- Mobility – As you age, joints may get stiff, and muscles may weaken. These changes can make it harder for you to turn your head to look back, turn the steering wheel quickly, or brake safely.
- Vision – It might be harder to see people, things, and movement outside the direct line of sight. It may also take longer to read street or traffic signs or even recognize familiar places. At night, you may have trouble seeing things clearly. Glare from oncoming headlights or streetlights can be a problem. Depending on the time of day, the sun might be blinding. Eye diseases, such as glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration, as well as some medicines, can also cause vision problems.
- Hearing – Aging can cause hearing changes, making it harder to notice horns, sirens, or even noises coming from your own car. These sounds warn you when you may need to pull over or get out of the way, or when there is a possible mechanical issue with your vehicle.
- Medicine – Some medication can make you feel drowsy, lightheaded, or less alert than usual, which can make driving unsafe. Some drugs include a warning about driving, but even those that do not might have an effect on the quality of your driving.
- Slower reaction time and reflexes – As you get older, your reflexes might get slower, and you might not react as quickly as you could in the past. Stiff joints or weak muscles also can make it harder to move quickly. Loss of feeling or tingling in your fingers and feet can make it difficult to steer or use the foot pedals.
- A medical condition – Some medical conditions, such as uncontrollable movements and loss of coordination and balance due to Parkinson’s disease make it unsafe to drive. Similarly, many of the loss of control of limbs or other movement limitations following a stroke can mean it is no longer safe to drive.
- Dementia – In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia, some people are able to keep driving. But, as memory and decision-making skills get worse, they will likely need to stop.
These tips from the NIA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) may help you to make safe choices about driving:
- Talk with your healthcare provider if you have any concerns about your driving safety.
- Practice physical fitness that will support your strength and flexibility, which may help your driving abilities.
- Consider your car. If possible, drive a car with automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, and large mirrors. Newer cars come equipped with backup cameras, which can make parking and backing up easier, as well as other sensors that can alert a driver to a nearby object or vehicle before an accident occurs.
- Take care of your eyes and ears. Always wear your glasses or contact lenses if you need them to see clearly. If you use hearing aids, be sure to wear them while driving.
- Avoid driving certain times of day. Cut back on or stop driving at night if you have trouble seeing in the dark. Try to avoid driving during sunrise and sunset, when the sun can be directly in your line of vision and during rush hour.
- Check in with yourself. Don’t drive if you feel lightheaded or drowsy. Be sure to check any warnings on your medications. Try to avoid driving when you are stressed or tired.
- Don’t crowd. Leave ample space between your car and the car in front of you and start braking early when you need to stop.
- Plan your route. Choose a route that avoids highways or other high-speed roadways. If you must drive on a fast-moving highway, drive in the right-hand lane, where traffic moves more slowly.
- When in doubt, don’t go out. Bad weather, such as rain, ice, or snow, can make it hard for anyone to drive. Try to wait until the weather is better, or use buses, taxis, ridesharing services, or other alternatives.
- Wear seat belts. Always wear your seat belt and make sure your passengers wear theirs, too.
- Limit distractions. Eating, adjusting the radio, or chatting can all be distracting. If you use your cellphone while driving (for navigation, for example), use it hands-free and use voice activation when possible. Never type on your phone while driving.
If you are concerned that your driving skills may be declining there are a variety of resources that may help. Below are just a few:
- The American Automobile Association’s (AAA) RoadWise Driver Course is designed to help older adults adjust to age-related physical changes to extend their safe driving career.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers an online self-assessment that can help you determine if driving is still safe.
- Take a driver safety course. Some car insurance companies may even lower your bill when you complete this type of class. Organizations such as AARP or your car insurance company can help you find a nearby resource.
It can be hard for some people to recognize or admit when it’s no longer safe to drive. If you are worried that an older family member or friend’s driving may be a problem you may want to observe the person’s driving skills or ask them to consider doing the NHTSA self-assessment of their driving. If it’s not possible to directly observe the person’s driving, watch for these warning signs:
- Multiple vehicle crashes, near misses, or new dents or scrapes on the car
- Two or more traffic tickets or warnings within the last two years
- Increases in car insurance premiums because of driving issues
- Comments from neighbors or friends about erratic, unsafe, or aggressive driving
- Anxiety about driving at night
- Health issues that might affect driving, including problems with vision, hearing, and movement
- Recommendations from a doctor to modify driving habits or quit driving entirely
Talking with an older person about his or her driving is often difficult. For many older adults, giving up the keys means a loss of freedom of choice and movement. Many people are afraid of being dependent upon someone else for getting around. They worry about losing the ability to run errands, attend appointments, and participate in activities that they did on their own for decades. They may be concerned about becoming socially isolated and missing out.
When talking with someone about no longer driving, try this tips from AARP:
- Be prepared. Learn about local community services to help someone who can no longer drive before you have the conversation with them. Your local Area Agency on Aging can help you find local services. Call (800) 677-1116 or search the Eldercare Locator online. You also can try searching Rides In Sight or calling (855) 607-4337, a service of the nonprofit ITN America that provides information about transportation options for older adults.
- Avoid confrontation. Use “I” messages rather than “you” messages. For example, say, “I am concerned about your safety when you are driving,” rather than, “You’re no longer a safe driver.”
- Stick to the issue. Discuss the driver’s skills, not their age.
- Focus on safety and maintaining independence. Be clear that the goal is for the older driver to continue the activities they enjoy while staying safe. Offer to help the person stay independent. For example, you might say, “I’ll help you figure out how to get where you want to go if driving isn’t possible.”
- Be positive and supportive. Recognize the importance of a driver’s license to the older person. Realize they may become defensive, angry, hurt, or withdrawn during your conversation. You might say, “Let’s work together to find a solution.”
- Consider broaching the topic gradually. Some experts suggest a gentle introduction of the driving conversation, and then revisiting it gradually over time.
AARP Free Online Seminar called We Need to Talk that will help you determine how to assess your loved ones’ driving skills and provide tools to help you have this important conversation.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Road Safety for Older Adults
AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
Senior Driver Safety
Learn more about driving safety and Alzheimer’s disease.