Updated: Mar 23, 2021
There’s no legal age at which a senior citizen must stop driving. So how do you know when someone is at-risk? Read on to find out how changes to a loved ones health can affect their driving and what the next steps should be. Our "Do You Know The Warning Signs?" blog also breaks down health and wellness changes that may impact your loved one's driving abilities.
It’s important to remember that limiting or stopping driving is a complex and emotionally-charged discussion. Older drivers have a lifetime of driving experience behind them and deeply value the independence and mobility that driving provides.
Whether it’s the driving of a spouse, a parent, or another loved one, there may come a time in your life when you begin to question whether a loved one is still safe to drive. But how do you know when it’s time for your loved one to limit or stop driving altogether? There are many things to consider before broaching this sensitive topic. Is your loved one running stop signs or getting lost? Are they side-swiping other vehicles or stopping at green lights? If so, it may be time to hand over the keys…
Getting older doesn't automatically mean that someone shouldn’t be behind the wheel; however, regularly monitoring your loved one’s driving abilities is an important part of maintaining senior health. There comes a point for nearly everyone when reflexes slow and vision deteriorates, making driving no longer safe for them and others on the road. A driver who struggles to see or hear, regardless of age, will have difficulty identifying hazards, road signs and obstacles up ahead or around their vehicle. This is especially true for people who have age-related health conditions, such as dementia.
Assess Your Driving Ability
Many seniors resist giving up their cars, in fact, even when loved ones voice concerns about their abilities behind the wheel, seniors often don’t want to give up the independence that a car symbolizes.
Some of the health conditions that may threaten a person’s ability to sit behind the wheel include:
Dementia, including Alzheimer's disease
Problems with hearing or vision (glaucoma, cataracts)
Other chronic issues
Any conditions that require medications that could impair driving ability, such as anti-anxiety drugs, narcotics, and sleeping pills
Making a decision about driving isn’t so much disease-specific as it is about driving performance. When Parkinson’s or arthritis causes stiffness that’s so severe it impairs reaction time, that’s a sign your loved one should stop driving.
Another red flag is whether your loved one has reached the age of 85. Around that time, even healthy individuals will experience slowed reaction time and trouble with visual acuity. Hearing may also be an issue for some at that age.
Stop Signs for Older Drivers
Failure to yield or stop when prompted by signs or traffic lights
Inability to recognize the right of way
Inability to keep track of speed limits
Forgetting to signal when turning or switching lanes
Routinely becoming lost (especially in familiar areas)
Inconsistent acceleration (erratic control of speeds)
Challenges with recognizing distance between vehicles and objects
Difficulty merging and changing lanes
Frequent “near-misses” in which accidents almost occurred
Road rage, anxiety and stress
Stopping at green lights or when there is no stop sign
Getting confused by traffic signals
Running stop signs or red lights
Having accidents or side-swiping other cars when parking
Getting lost and calling a family member for directions
Hearing from friends, neighbors and acquaintances who are concerned about a senior's driving
Signs of damage to a loved one’s car
Delayed response to unexpected situations
Becoming easily distracted while driving
Decrease in confidence while driving
Having difficulty moving into or maintaining the correct lane of traffic
Hitting curbs when making right turns or backing up
Having frequent close calls
Driving too fast or too slow
What is the law on medical conditions and driving?
The Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles must be made aware of any medical conditions that may affect someone’s ability to drive safely. This could be previous health conditions that have worsened or even new ones.
If your loved one is involved in an accident where health condition may have been a factor, it’s important to keep in mind that they could be prosecuted. Their insurance may also not cover it.
When you do have concerns about your own or a loved one's driving, one option is to request a driving evaluation, which can be performed at a rehabilitation center, driving school, or state licensing agency.
There are also physical therapy simulation centers that can run tests to measure a person's reaction time and vision, along with testing the ability to safely drive through an obstacle course. https://therapyplus.madonna.org/what-is-outpatient-rehabilitation
Ask Questions, make mutual decision.
In order to make this decision feel mutual, you may find more success in involving them. Ask them specific questions about their personal health and health changes, and their experiences on the road. How do they feel when they drive? What challenges have they faced when driving alone? Have they noticed any changes in their ability to do tasks that used to be much easier?
They may provide insights you never noticed about their behaviors on their road. They may even begin to see for themselves that relinquishing their license might be the best choice available to them, making your conversation much easier and become more open minded to alternative solutions.
Like we mentioned before, driving is about independence and the right that your loved one has earned to do so. It’s not easy for anyone to understand why all of this is being taken away at the drop of a hat. One alternative solution may be to let your loved one keep their keys and their license in their wallet. This doesn’t mean they are going to be able to use them to drive, however, seeing these items on a daily basis will allow them to feel like they are still in control. Removing the battery from the keys so they no longer work or taking the car “to the shop” will help with the transition while still allowing your love one to feel independent. This will give you time to make them more familiar and comfortable with the local services available to them as they adjust to a life where driving is no longer an option.
For more tips and information about maintaining your loved one's independence during this difficult time, visit our "What Gives You Freedom?" blog.
Tips for the conversation:
Ask, “what do you think we should do?” instead of saying, “we think you should stop driving.”
Be empathetic. Share that you want them to be active and have as full a life as possible.
Share your fears, such as, “I don’t want the last chapter of your life to be marred by an accident that kills someone.”
Try open-ended questions such as “at what point will you know you’re no longer safe to drive?”
Use the word “I” and “we,” not “you.” For example, “I’m concerned about the minor accidents you’ve had recently.”
“Wouldn’t you feel better if you could say, ‘I decided to give up my license because I know that I have lost some of my ability, and I don’t ever want to be in an accident and feel like I was the cause of it?'”
Adjusting to Life Without Driving
Step 1: Have an Alternative Transportation Plan in Place
Come to the table with solutions.
How will the needs of transportation be met?
Can your loved one keep their vehicle, and allow an approved agency caregiver to drive them in it?
When driving is no longer possible, your loved one can reduce your need for transportation by taking advantage of delivery services for groceries, meals, and medications and even try at-home service providers.
Step 2: Look into Senior Health Services that can Provide Transportation.
Your loved one making the transition from an independent driver to a passenger can be difficult. However, creating a network of alternative transportation arrangements to get your loved one where they need to be can go a long way as they are adjusting to the change.
Step 3: Involve a Third Party
Many families turn to a neutral third party to evaluate a senior driver and help break the news to them that they should consider quitting driving. This can be a family doctor, an occupational specialist or a therapist who specializes in aging issues.
Perhaps the best idea we’ve researched is a national program called “Keeping Us Safe” that certifies professionals to evaluate senior drivers and give them recommendations.
The best thing about the program is that it takes the pressure off families. In fact, the idea is to have the senior driver come to their own decision, which can be empowering.
Home Care Partners of Nebraska's can help navigate the challenges and changes life throws your way with care plans that focus on quality of life. Together with you we will create a personalized Plan of Care based on specific needs. This includes personal care, companion care, recovery care, and memory care support.
If you’re not sure whether it’s safe for your loved one to drive, request a driving evaluation. (https://therapyplus.madonna.org/what-is-outpatient-rehabilitation)
Today, one in six American drivers are 65 and older, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that fatal crashes per mile traveled increase at about age 70 and peak at age 85 and older.