Seniors and Driving: A Guide

Driving is an important source of independence for older adults. However, data trends show that driving gets more risky as one ages. Thus, it is very important to consider how safe it is for your loved one to get behind the wheel.

There are a few key factors to consider regarding your loved one's ability to drive:

1. Health conditions (physical and cognitive limitations)

Physical and mental impairments are known to accompany aging, ranging from dementia to arthritis. These natural consequences of aging can compromise driving ability and judgment. If you are concerned about your loved one's ability to drive, consult with their physicians and raise the issue of driving safety. (Please note that a physician can’t talk to you without your loved one's permission, unless you have power of attorney.)

2. Visual impairment

Vision is (obviously) a key component of driving safely. It has been said that 90 percent of the information needed to drive safely relates to the ability to see clearly. For example, this may be accurately reading the speedometer or detecting pedestrians. Deterioration in vision is an inevitable effect of aging because as the eye ages, far less light is processed. Seniors are also more susceptible to cataracts, glaucoma, and other vision problems. Encourage your loved one to have regular eye exams, and check with their eye doctor if you have concerns.

3. Hearing impairment

Another inevitable consequence of aging is at least partial deterioration in hearing. It is estimated that one-third of those over 65 have hearing problems. This loss may happen gradually without the person realizing it. As a result, the ability to hear horns, screeching tires, sirens, and other sounds may be compromised. Try to make sure your loved one has regular hearing tests.

4. Prescription drug side-effects

It is common for older adults to be taking a variety of medications. Many drugs can cause drowsiness, blurred vision, confusion, tremors, or other side effects. Certain drugs even react with other drugs and can cause serious problems. If your loved one takes a lot of pills each day, be sure to check their possible side effects and ask a doctor if necessary. Notably, some over-the-counter medications can even affect driving ability. Don't be afraid to ask a physician or pharmacist about the possible side-effects or drug interactions of your loved one's medications.

How can I tell if my loved one is no longer safe behind the wheel?

If you have concerns about your loved one's driving safety, consider the following:

1. Car Insurance Changes or Traffic Tickets

If you’ve noticed any questionable driving, ask your loved one if they’ve gotten any tickets for speeding or other violations recently. Naturally, it helps to do this in a non-accusatory way at a time when they’re not driving. Alternatively, ask whether your loved one’s car insurance rate has gone up. An answer of yes may be a sign that they’ve had recent driving infractions.

2. Damage to the Car

Consider walking around your loved one's car to look for signs of damage. While everyone’s car gets nicked now and then, it is important to notice the kind of scratches or dents that could indicate driving mishaps.

3. Reluctance to Drive

Is your loved one reluctant to drive? Do they seems tense or exhausted after driving? For example, do they decline invitations to social events that require driving? This may be a sign that they are aware of their own limitations.

4. Friends’ Observations

Consider discreetly checking in with your loved one’s friends and neighbors and ask if they’ve noticed any driving problems. If you live far from your loved one, consider trying to identify a couple people who would be willing to keep you informed about your loved one's driving and safety.

5. Driving Behavior Changes

Try to take several drives with your aging loved one at the wheel, and observe. Are they tense? Do they seem particularly tired after driving? Look for these signs of driving problems:

  • Do they fasten their seat belt?

  • Do they sit comfortably at the wheel, or do they crane forward or show signs of discomfort?

  • Are they aware of traffic lights, road signs, pedestrians and the reactions of other motorists?

  • Do they react slowly or with confusion in unexpected situations?

  • Do they consistently wait too long to respond to traffic lights or other driving cues?

  • Do they tailgate?

  • Do they stay in their own lane?

  • Does he or she complain of getting lost more than she used to?

Notice of any of the above may warrant beginning a thoughtful conversation with your loved one.