For many of us, driving is just another part of our daily lives; however, for seniors, it’s more than that. Driving enables older adults to maintain a sense of dignity, mobility and freedom—things that can seem to slip further away during our twilight years. While we want our aging loved ones to stay independent, their risk of being injured or worse in a car crash increases with age.
In this blog, we’ll discuss a wide range of topics related to senior driver safety, including what factors affect elderly drivers, warning signs indicating when it’s time to hang up the keys, how seniors and their loved ones can help prevent an accident, and, lastly, how to approach the topic of “driving retirement.”
How Aging Affects Elderly Drivers
We want our loved ones to continue enjoying the hobbies they love and visiting their favorite places; however, more importantly, we want to ensure that they are doing so safely. Seniors have the second-highest crash death rate per mile driven.1 In fact, about 700 elderly drivers are injured in motor vehicle crashes, and 22 die because of their injuries.2 Oftentimes, these fatalities are due to increased frailty and underlying health conditions rather than recklessness, as seniors are some of the safest drivers on the road, taking precautions such as wearing seatbelts, no consumption of alcohol before or while driving, and not exceeding the speed limit.
What Factors are Involved?
There are many factors that can affect your loved one’s ability to drive, including changes in health, physical injuries and natural aging.1 Depending on the circumstances, a senior’s driving ability may change suddenly at once or gradually over time.
Here are a few things that may alter your aging loved one’s ability to drive:
- Vision loss can affect senior drivers’ depth perception and peripheral vision, making it harder for them to see passing vehicles, identify unexpected hazards, or leave enough space between themselves and other cars.
- Hearing loss may prevent elderly drivers from hearing warning sounds like sirens or car horns.
- Mobility issues caused by health or cognitive conditions—such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia—can make it difficult for older adults to drive safely. Seniors may find it difficult to check blind spots, properly grip the steering wheel, or avoid making sudden movements.
- Slower reflexes are a common part of aging. Drivers need to be able to react to unexpected hazards, such as sudden changes in speed, animals or pedestrians crossing the street, or erratic drivers on the road.
- Medications sometimes include warnings about driving, as they can make seniors drowsy, lightheaded, confused or less alert. Make sure your aging loved one takes their medicine at the right time of day and follows their doctor’s safety advice.
When Should a Senior Stop Driving?
Senior drivers should stop driving if they begin to show multiple warning signs indicating that there has been a change in health, cognitive function or mobility preventing them from driving safely. These warning signs can vary drastically between older adults. However, it might be time to have your aging loved one stop driving if you’ve noticed any of the following:
- They get lost or appear confused while driving—especially in a familiar area.
- They have a difficult time seeing, hearing or reacting properly.
- They’ve been recently diagnosed with or experiencing health problems that can influence their driving ability.
- They have had other passengers or neighbors complain about their driving.
- They’ve received multiple tickets or been involved in many crashes or near accidents.
- They’ve expressed anxiety or frustration while driving.
- They often repeat driving errors, such as missing stop signs, drifting into other lanes, or forgetting to check blind spots.
How Senior Drivers Can Prevent an Accident
Some elderly drivers are aware of their limitations and what driving conditions tend to give them the most trouble. Others may not have noticed. Either way, seniors can take the following precautions to help keep themselves safe on the road:
- Avoid driving during certain times of day and weather conditions. Seniors should limit driving in the dark as much as possible, especially if their vision is impaired. Those who are anxious in heavy traffic should avoid driving during rush hours. As for the weather, rain, snow, ice and sleet can be hazardous for all drivers, but seniors with slower reflexes are at an even higher risk of an accident.
- Plan a route beforehand. Being familiar with which roads or exits to take can help older adults avoid getting lost. Those who are uncomfortable with highways can find different routes, helping them feel more at ease during their drive.
- Limit distractions. Simple things like adjusting the radio, eating, or chatting with a passenger can distract drivers, increasing their risk of an accident. Set the radio to a favorite station before leaving the driveway, and use hands-free navigation options when possible.
- Put on a seatbelt. While this won’t necessarily keep drivers from being involved in a crash, it can help them stay safe in the event one happens. Seniors should always make sure everyone in the vehicle has their seatbelt on before leaving the driveway.
- Check hearing and vision annually. It’s important for elderly drivers to have their eyes and ears checked regularly so they can be fully aware of their surroundings. Seniors with prescriptions should always wear them as prescribed, and those with hearing aids should be sure to wear them while driving.
- Stay active. Seniors who are physically active tend to be more flexible and have better posture, which may strengthen their driving abilities.
Family members can also help their aging loved ones stay safe on the road by researching different mobility plans, such as the CDC’s mobility plan, on their behalf. Loved ones can also help seniors by scheduling an appointment with a rehabilitation specialist or occupational therapist to have their driving skills checked.
Perhaps the most beneficial thing you can do for your loved one is to go for a ride along with them. During this drive, you can keep an eye out for any of the warning signs listed above while witnessing your loved one’s driving habits and weaknesses firsthand.
How to Initiate the Conversation
Families often wonder how to take the keys away from an elderly driver without hurting their feelings or starting a fight. It’s important to remember that many seniors view driving as a symbol of their independence and freedom. Some may be more reluctant to give up the keys than others. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that families have the conversation with their aging loved ones and establish expectations for moving forward. This conversation can either be about handing over the keys for good, or it can focus on everyone coming to an agreement on when it’s time for “driving retirement.”
Keep these tips in mind when you decide to initiate the conversation:
- Be gentle and positive. This discussion is difficult for both you and your loved one, so it’s important they know you’re on their side. Avoid being impatient or confrontational by using “I” messaging rather than “you” messaging. Acknowledge their feelings and reassure them when they become flustered. You can try saying “I understand that this is a lot for you, but I’m worried about your safety,” or “Let’s come to a decision together.” Avoid sentences like “You are no longer safe,” or “You can’t be trusted.”
- Pinpoint specifics. Before talking to your loved one, be sure that you have evidence and are not making assumptions. Point out which skills they struggle with, such as turning left or drifting into other lanes, and explain the potential repercussions. Above all, stay focused on their skillset not their age.
- Offer solutions and alternative options. Research what options are available in your area or organize arrangements with other family members before going into the discussion. Showing your aging loved one that there are other options and that you took the time to find them may have a significant impact.
- Revisit the subject. It can be helpful to bring the topic up multiple times over an extended period. Revisiting the topic gives your loved one time to think it over on their own schedule.
How HomeWell Can Help
At HomeWell Care Services, we understand finding alternative transportation options for your aging loved one can be difficult. But we also understand how important travel is for seniors’ physical and mental health, as well as their social lives. Let us help clear some time in your schedule by providing your senior loved one with safe and reliable transportation that can help them complete light errands, visit nearby friends and enjoy their favorite activities.
All you have to do is contact our office and schedule a consultation, where we’ll discuss your specific requirements. From there, HomeWell will work with you to help navigate your loved one’s transportation needs.
Keep in mind that your loved one’s driver’s license may mean a lot to them, and the thought of having to rely on others may make them feel irritated or uncomfortable. Regardless of what you decide, reiterate to your loved one that this decision was made with their best interests in mind and that they can continue doing the activities they love even if they stop driving.
1. Senior Driver Safety and Mobility | AAA
2. Age Without Injury—Still going Strong Campaign | Center of Disease Control and Prevention
3. Safe Driving for Older Adults | National Institute of Aging