When Should Seniors Stop Driving?

When Should Seniors Stop Driving?

If there was ever a question that should be handled on a case-by-case basis, it is, “When should seniors stop driving?” Much is at stake — you want to account for the safety of those behind the wheel and others on the road.

It is important to remain vigilant as you watch for emerging health and aging issues that might impact driving skills. When there are concerns, it is important to know how to approach a senior driver.

Health Issues and Aging

The safe operation of a vehicle requires a complex set of skills. Proper driving habits, particular driving skills, physical attributes and cognitive abilities are all important. Often, limitations due to medical conditions or aging develop quite gradually, making it difficult for even the most conscientious older driver to self-assess. That is when a caring family member or friend can really make a difference.

A safe driver must be able to maintain concentration and focus to avoid becoming distracted in critical traffic situations. Drivers need to be confident, but not overly so. A timid or stressed motorist can be as much of a hazard as a reckless one. Finally, reaction times must be adequate to cope with unexpected events, like another driver running a red light or a child darting out into traffic.

Everyone Is Different

Chronic medical conditions or memory loss may take drivers off the road in their 60s, while other drivers may be driving safely in their 80s or beyond.

Clearly, both age and health are key factors. Age is still an important factor, in part because of increased frailty associated with aging. Consider that motorists 80 and older are involved in serious crashes more than any other age group except for teenagers. Although senior drivers are more likely to wear seatbelts and are less likely to drink and drive, it is more difficult for them to physically cope with crashes.

There are a variety of health changes to watch for, including those involving vision, hearing, and prescription drug use.

Vision Issues

Drivers must see well close-up and at a distance. It is necessary to constantly monitor the speedometer and the road ahead. Cataracts, macular degeneration, and other eye conditions may impair vision. Aging gradually restricts the response of the retina to light which can cause night blindness. Vision issues can also exaggerate distracting glare from street lights and oncoming headlights. Sometimes, it is necessary for a senior motorist to avoid night driving.

Hearing Impairment

Although much of the information required to drive comes from visual cues, there are important auditory cues as well — honking horns, screeching tires and voices of those yelling warnings are just three examples. The National Institutes of Health reports that one-third of adults at least 65 years old have hearing loss. By age 75, hearing loss impacts half the population. Regular hearing tests are important.

Drugs and Alcohol

Changes in the use of alcohol, prescription drugs, and over-the-counter medications may impact a driver’s abilities. Dangerous alcohol/drug interactions are one concern. Even modest alcohol consumption may have a more adverse impact than it once did. Drinking and driving don’t mix, regardless of age.

Many elderly individuals rely on multiple pills to combat various medical conditions, and some medications may diminish driving ability. Adverse drug interactions may also lead to dangerous driving. If you suspect adverse reactions to medications, it is important to promptly consult the driver’s doctor and/or pharmacist. Note that you’ll need the older driver’s permission to do so unless you have power of attorney.

Standards to Apply

There are specific things you can watch for when assessing whether your loved one is still fit to drive, and, if so, under what conditions.

It is important to watch for evidence of developing driving issues:

  • Close calls in traffic
  • Difficulty backing up
  • Unexplained dents and scrapes
  • Striking curbs, mailboxes or other obstructions
  • Driving the wrong speed for conditions — too fast or slow
  • Lane-change ability and staying in one’s lane
  • A recent spate of traffic tickets

If you suspect driving problems, quietly canvass neighbors and friends to see if they’ve witnessed anything of concern. Make a point of riding with the senior driver a few times.

Too often, loved ones witness a decline in driving skills, but they don’t know how to approach the older driver. Needless to say, dealing with the subject can be like navigating a busy highway at rush hour — fraught with hazards. Still, the topic is too important to ignore.

The key is to approach the senior driver in a caring and yet deliberate way. Productive conversations lead to smart decisions going forward.

When It’s Time to Talk

Seniors value the independence that driving affords them. After a lifetime of driving, many remain confident in their abilities. Ultimately, the goal is to promote safety while respecting that need for independence. Resistance to giving up the keys is understandable. Going to the doctor, shopping or even getting a haircut may suddenly require assistance when driving is no longer an option.

If it’s time to have a discussion about whether they should stop or restrict driving, consider a free online seminar on the subject entitled “We Need to Talk.” It is a collaborative effort of MIT’s AgeLab and The Hartford.

The seminar provides ideas for how to:

  • Engage an older driver in a casual conversation about the topic
  • Encourage a senior driver’s honest self-evaluation
  • Discuss alternative transportation options

About the Aurum Network

The Aurum Senior Care Network includes more than 60 independently owned providers of senior services located throughout Massachusetts. Please contact us today for prompt, professional and friendly assistance.

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