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Spotlight on Aging: Are Your Parents Too Old to Drive?

Health Hub
Author name: Lee Health

An automobile driver in city traffic typically makes about 200 driving decisions per mile. Most of us are hardly aware that we’re checking mirrors and gauges, slowing down, speeding up, signaling, changing lanes, keeping the proper following distance, and so on, while we drive.

These “driving decisions” seem to come naturally with practice and experience.

But as we age, the benefit of driving experience may become less a factor in driving safety. Mobility issues, vision changes, and hearing loss begin to affect our ability to drive safely.

Sure, many seniors continue to drive safely in their 80s and even early 90s because they’ve adjusted to their limitations.

Some won’t drive after dark due to night vision issues, others won’t drive during rush hour because of slower reflexes to more complex driving situations, and so on.

But what if you have an aging parent who refuses to heed their obvious driving limitations and continues to drive, putting themselves and others at risk? How do you know when the time has come for them to stop driving, and what should you do about it?

“Driving helps older adults stay mobile and independent, but the risk of being injured or killed in a motor vehicle crash increases as people age,” says Jennifer Cittadino, an advanced practice registered nurse with Lee Health Geriatric Medicine.

“According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about 500 older Americans are injured every day in crashes. That’s why it’s so important for family members to monitor their aging parents’ driving abilities and habits.”

Determining your parents’ ability to drive safely can help ensure their independence, but more importantly, also their health, Cittando says.

Experts say that seniors who lose their ability to drive may begin to isolate, which can lead to poor nutrition, health problems, and depression.

Identify the warning signs

If you’re able to ride along with a parent to look for signs of poor driving, remember that it doesn’t automatically mean your parent shouldn’t drive.

Your parent’s poor driving behaviors may be related to an underlying physical condition, such as diminished eyesight or hearing—both often correctable by eyewear and assistive hearing devices.

Also, your parent may also take medications that can affect their driving skills. Medication side effects such as drowsiness and lightheadedness can impair decision making. Your parent should talk with their doctor or pharmacist to learn how their medications can affect their driving.

What to look for

  • Does your parent confuse the gas and brake pedals or have difficulty working them? Drivers who lift their legs to move from the accelerator to the brake, rather than keeping a heel on the floor and pressing with the toes, may be signaling waning leg strength.
  • Does your mom or dad seem to ignore or miss stop signs and other traffic signals? Perhaps your parent is inattentive or cannot spot the signs in a crowded, constantly moving visual field.
  • Does your parent weave between or straddle lanes? Signaling incorrectly or not at all when changing lanes can be particularly dangerous, especially if your parent fails to check mirrors or blind spots.
  • Do other drivers honk or pass frequently, even when the traffic stream is moving relatively slowly? This may indicate difficulty keeping pace with fast-changing conditions.
  • Does your mom or dad get lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places? This could indicate problems with working memory or early cognitive decline.

Source: NHTSA

If you’re unable to observe your parent driving, watch for these signs:

  • Multiple vehicle crashes, “near misses,” and/or new dents in the car
  • Two or more traffic tickets or warnings within the past two years; increases in car insurance premiums because of driving issues
  • Comments from neighbors or friends about driving
  • Anxiety about driving at night
  • Health issues that might affect driving ability, including problems with vision, hearing, and/or movement
  • Complaints about the speed, sudden lane changes, or actions of other drivers
  • Recommendations from a doctor to modify driving habits or quit driving entirely

Source: National Institute on Aging

If your parent exhibits any of these warning signs, talk with them about getting a comprehensive driving assessment, Cittadino says, citing a recommendation of the NHTSA.

“A driving assessment can help identify and address any risky driving behaviors,” she says. “The goal, of course, is to maximize their safe driving.”

How to Have 'The Talk' About a Parents’ Driving

Understandably, talking with a parent about their driving can be difficult. Here are some tips to help:

  • Be prepared. Identify the person's transportation needs. Learn about local services that can help the parent who can no longer drive. The goal is to help your parent continue the activities they enjoy while staying safe and maintaining their independence. For example, you might say, "I'll help you figure out how to get where you want to go if driving isn't possible."
  • 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."
  • Be positive and supportive. For all of us, our driver's licenses are symbols of personal freedom. Understand that a parent may become upset at losing their driving privilege. "I understand that this may be upsetting" or "We'll work together to find a solution," are helpful.
  • Stick to the issue. Discuss the driver's skills, not their age.

Source: National Institute on Aging

Helpful Resources

Your local Area Agency on Aging can help you find services in your area. Call 1-800-677-1116, or go to https://eldercare.acl.gov to find your nearest Area Agency on Aging.

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
202-638-5944
info@aaafoundation.org
www.seniordriving.aaa.com
www.aaafoundation.org

AARP
888-687-2277 (toll-free)
877-434-7598 (TTY/toll-free)
member@aarp.org
www.aarp.org/auto/driver-safety

Eldercare Locator
800-677-1116 (toll-free)
eldercarelocator@n4a.org 
https://eldercare.acl.gov