Although many elderly loved ones can continue to drive safely in their senior years, it’s normal for driving abilities to change as individuals grow older. It’s also critical for us to pay attention to warning signs that age may be interfering with driving abilities and safety. You can help keep your loved ones safe on the roads by encouraging safe driving practices, and recognizing the warning signs of unsafe driving.
How Does Aging Affect Driving?
There is no set cutoff point when an individual should stop driving, as everyone ages differently. However, older adults are much more likely to get into accidents and receive traffic citations than younger drivers—statistics indicate fatal crash rates increase significantly after a driver has reached the age of 70. What is the cause of this increase? As our loved ones age, many factors that affect driving change as well, including worsening vision, hearing impairments, and slowed reflexes. Some individuals have chronic conditions that may worsen with time, or they may suffer other health issues such as strokes or heart attacks, and then have to adjust to these changes. Aging tends to result in a reduction of flexibility, coordination, and strength, all of which are critical in an individual’s ability to control a car.
- Leg pain may make it difficult to maneuver feet over the gas or brake pedals.
- Reaction time slows significantly with age, it may become harder for your loved one to spot vehicles emerging from driveways or side streets, or react accordingly to a stopped or slowed vehicle ahead.
- It becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of signals, markings, and road signs, as well as traffic and pedestrians—it’s also more difficult to divide attention effectively between these factors.
- Joint pain and stiffness can make it harder to look over a shoulder when changing lanes, or to look left, right, and then left again at intersections to check for traffic.
- Arm strength may diminish with age, making it more difficult to steer quickly and effectively when necessary.
Recognizing the Warning Signs of Unsafe Driving
Your senior loved one may have driven independently his or her entire life and take great pride in their safety record on the road, but as individuals age, it’s critical to understand that driving ability changes as well. Sometimes unsafe signs can occur gradually, or a recent change in a loved one’s health may cause problems. Even if a warning sign seems minor, together they may add up and result in your loved one posing a substantial risk to themselves and other drivers on the road. If you are concerned about your senior parent’s driving abilities or those of a friend or loved one, we encourage you to keep an eye out for the following warning signs:
- Eyesight problems. In some cases, eye conditions or other medications may interfere with an individual’s ability to focus their peripheral vision, or may cause additional light sensitivity, trouble seeing in the dark, or blurred and worsened vision. Can your loved one easily read street signs and see traffic lights, or do they slow down and drive closer? Are they able to react accordingly when another driver passes them from behind or from the side?
- Medications. Certain combinations of medications may affect your loved one’s reflexes and senses—be sure to check the label on medications or verify driving safety with a medical professional if your loved one is starting to notice a difference in their driving ability after starting a new medication.
- Reflexes. Is your loved one able to react quickly if they need to brake abruptly, or quickly look over his or her shoulder? Have they ever confused the gas and brake pedals before? Do they frequently become flustered or agitated while driving, or are they quick to anger?
- Hearing. This is actually an important part of driving safety. If your loved one’s hearing is worsening, they may not be able to hear someone accelerating nearby, horns honking, or emergency sirens.
- Memory. If your loved one has mentioned missing exits or getting lost frequently, they may need a medical professional’s evaluation to determine it’s still safe for them to be on the road.
- Driving Basics. Does your loved one make sudden, abrupt lane changes? Do they drift into other lanes, brake, or accelerate suddenly without any reason? Failing to use a turn signal or keeping a turn signal on even after changing lanes is a warning sign as well.
- Increased traffic citations. Critical red flags to watch out for include hitting curbs, garage doors, fences, mailboxes, or experiencing “close calls”, almost crashing, and increased warnings by traffic or law enforcement.
Aging does not automatically mean your loved one must lose his or her driving ability and independence. Encourage your parents and relatives to take charge of their health and receive regular check ups to ensure they are in the best possible driving shape. Get vision checked regularly, ensure headlights, mirrors, and the car windshield is clean, and have your hearing checked annually. Speak to your loved one’s doctor about medications that impair driving ability, and encourage your loved one to get enough sleep, as that is essential to driving well. Focus on improving your loved one’s overall health.