Most older Americans have been driving since they were teenagers and want to retain the independence that comes with being at the wheel. Growing older does not necessarily mean a driver is less capable; in fact, years of driving experience may make them a more conscientious driver. But changes that occur as we age, even for those who are in very good health, may affect a senior’s ability to be a fully safe driver.
Initiate a Conversation
If you have an older family member or friend whose well-being is important to you, it is best to start the conversation before something happens. Be sensitive to how an older adult will feel when talking about age-associated changes that may affect their driving. Plan ahead for how you will begin the conversation. If you find it too difficult to discuss their driving, consider asking a physician they trust to be part of the conversation.
In fact, their physician could have a key role in evaluating their safety as a driver. Medications taken by many seniors can affect vision and perception, decision making and reaction time. Encourage a senor driver to find out from their doctor or pharmacist how prescribed and over-the-counter medications may affect their ability to drive a car. Suggest asking if their medications can be adjusted to permit safe driving.
Most people know when their skills and abilities are not what they used to be, but they may not be willing to acknowledge it. They may adapt coping mechanisms to cover their diminishing ability. For example, a driver needing to have a ‘co-pilot’ with them to help them respond to driving situations, or a senior driving too slow could be compensating for slowed reflexes or reaction time.
When you ride with the senior look for signs of poor driving like these:
- Confusing the gas and brake pedals or difficulty working them
- Ignoring or missing stop signs and other traffic signs
- Straddling or weaving between lanes
- Getting lost or disoriented easily even in familiar places
If other drivers are honking at them or passing the senior often, even when the traffic stream is moving slowly, that may indicate difficulty keeping up with changing road conditions.
Check the senior’s car for any signs of a driving mishap. Rear-end crashes, parking lot fender-benders and side collisions while turning across traffic are signs of diminishing driving skills, particularly reaction time and depth perception.
Support Them Through Transitions
Assessing a senior’s driving ability does not necessarily mean the next step is taking away the car key. Some age-related changes may mean that adjustments in a senior’s driving patterns and habits, such as curtailing nighttime or rush hour driving, are appropriate now. You might want to consider taking a driving improvement course along with them such as AARP Driver Safety.
If more significant action is needed you can help the senior find alternatives to driving. Visit and talk with them more often and encourage use of public transportation, taxis or car services. Be available to drive them places to avoid feelings of isolation and lessen the disappointment of no longer being in the driver’s seat.