Talk to Your Doctor About Driving Safety

It’s one of the most important questions we have to answer as we grow older: “Is it still safe for me to drive?” For most of us, driving has meant independence since we were teenagers. In our later years, we might notice our driving skills are slipping. Maybe we’d rather not think about it. However, our loved ones may be more willing to think about it, especially if we’ve had an accident or two, or they’ve witnessed troubling signs when they’re the passenger in our car.

Talking about driving safety can be one of the most contentious intergenerational conversations. Seniors and family alike should know that driving skills don’t automatically decline at a certain age. Many older adults retain good driving skills into their 80s and beyond. But don’t avoid thinking about and discussing driving safety.

Begin by considering your health. Talk to your doctor about health problems that could make you unsafe behind the wheel, such as:

Slower reaction time and reflexes. Some of the normal changes of aging, as well as the effects of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and stroke, make it challenging to steer and to react quickly to signs and traffic signals, road conditions, and the actions of pedestrians and other cars.

Muscle and joint problems. Arthritis, osteoporosis and general loss of range of motion can make it harder to steer, to turn the head to look backwards, and to brake.

Vision loss. Glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, cataracts and other eye conditions reduce the ability to see road signs, pavement markings, other cars and pedestrians. Glare from the headlights of other cars compounds the problem.

Hearing problems. Seniors whose hearing has diminished with age may not be able to hear sirens, horns, or even audible signals from inside their own car.  

Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. Thinking and memory problems diminish a driver’s ability to drive safely. They may get lost, go the wrong way on one-way streets, or confuse the gas and brake pedal. The problem can be compounded because people with dementia may not realize there’s a problem.

Ask for a medication review

Some of the medications seniors take to manage their health conditions can cause side effects such as confusion, drowsiness and blurred vision. Ask your doctor to review your medications, and describe the effects you are noticing. The doctor might adjust your drug regimen—but never change the way you take your medication or stop talking a drug without your doctor’s approval.

Give the car a checkup, too

Sometimes, making adaptations to the car—or perhaps trading in the car for a different model—can extend a senior’s ability to drive. For people with arthritis, a car with automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes and larger mirrors can make up for loss of flexibility and strength. For drivers with leg problems, hand controls for gas and brake pedals might be a solution. Backup cameras and sensors reduce the risk of a crash.

Change your habits

Another safety measure is to make driving patterns changes, such as confining driving to familiar routes, and during times when traffic is lighter. People with vision loss should limit their driving to the daytime. Avoid driving in the rain when glare can be a problem, or during sunrise or sunset when the sun is directly in the line of vision. Older adults also can also take a senior driver ed class.

Get a second opinion

If you or your family are uncertain whether you are still a safe driver, you can have your driving skills evaluated by a driving rehabilitation specialist, an occupational therapist or other trained professional. These experts, along with your doctor and the department of motor vehicles, can provide a more clear picture.

Giving up the car doesn’t mean the end of mobility

If your doctor and other professionals say that driving is no longer safe for you, learn about other options, such as public transportation, senior ride services or ride-sharing. While getting around this way takes a little planning and is less spontaneous, you’ll most likely appreciate not having to worry about the possibility of an accident. Sit back and enjoy the ride!

Moving to a senior living community can be a great solution, as well. Talk to the community you’re considering about the transportation services they offer, whether that is to doctor appointments, shopping or cultural enrichment.

Source: IlluminAge with information from the National Institute on Aging