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Driving & Aging: Cautions & Stopping

Recently while driving I heard a report on the radio that included the staggering statistic that in the ten year period, between 2010 and 2016, in Japan that the number of fatal automobile crashes involving drivers over 75 years of age had nearly doubled. In fact, in 2016 13 percent of all Japanese fatal auto accidents involved elderly drivers — those over 75 years of age. The story went on to say that authorities were revoking driving licenses in record numbers of drivers in the over 75 age group because, in compulsory testing, they could not pass driver license road tests. This story and the concerns of a friend about her distant living mother’s driving has occasioned this month’s piece.

One of the many consequences of healthy aging is that people are living much longer than ever before. In a country like Japan this is particularly true, but also here in the United States. This means we have a lot more elderly drivers, including many of us who are reading this column. And, even if we are not old, we have parents, relatives, or friends who are. There are consequences to this new state of affairs.

Driving Skills & Age

This column is replete with the many things that change with age, and some of the changes are likely to affect our driving ability. Put succinctly, as we age, our driving skills inevitably decline. We do not have the same eye-hand coordination, our reaction time tends to decrease, we may have arthritis that makes turning our heads more difficult, muscle strength decreases, hearing may be impaired, vision is often reduced, and all these and other factors contrive to make us older people poorer drivers than we once were.

Other factors are also often in play as drivers age. Many medicines can have drowsiness or impaired motor skills as side effects. Of course, the most obvious drug that can reduce driving effectiveness is alcohol. Also, a host of diseases can impair driver performance like arthritis, prior strokes, certain neuromuscular disorders, Parkinson ’s disease, and any of the dementias.

The point is elderly drivers as a group may not be as competent as they were when first licensed or even last licensed. It is incumbent on all of us to be aware of our own driving ability and that of loved ones and friends — particularly older ones.

Detection of Driving Disability

Just as with a medical illness, there are signs or symptoms that a driver is losing effectiveness. If someone is having more “close calls” or has two accidents in a year, this should raise our awareness of problems. New and unexplained dents or scratches on a car are also telltale signs of driving mishaps. Two or more police traffic stops in two years is another sign that driving is worsening. Comments by family and or neighbors about a person’s driving are a warning. If there are an increased number of other motorists “honking” at you or the person of concern, this is a potential marker of poor driving. If changing lanes, driving at night, making left turns, or entering highway ramps are problems for the driver, these may indicate lessened driving ability. Importantly, if a doctor or loved one suggests that driving be curtailed or stopped this is a very good indication that one’s driving ability is questionable.

If any or all of the above are present in your own driving or a loved one’s, then it is a good idea to go to the highway department and take a driving test or, if you prefer, go to a driving school and be tested by a driver education professional. If the results of either of these suggest that driving be ended, then it is prudent for that advice to be taken.

Tips for Safer Driving With the Elderly

The table below lists a number of strategies or tips to help the older driver perform more safely. Most of the suggestions in the table are simple and intuitive. However, some drivers, particularly those with dementias or who are dependent on car transportation, will resist or ignore these recommendations. Careful implementation of the strategies or safety precautions can preserve the driver’s ability to drive. For example, if night driving is not possible then arranging for night transportation will be helpful actuating this plan. It is important to have candid but caring conversations about all this with the driver whose skills are judged problematic.

Tips for Enhancing Driver Performance in the Elderly Population

  • Do not mix alcohol and driving.
  • Remediate any impaired loss of eyesight or hearing.
  • Be physically active and exercise and do balance practice.
  • Avoid bad weather driving.
  • Do not drive into the sun at early morning or sunset.
  • If on a divided highway, choose the slow lane.
  • Avoid night driving.
  • Avoid any distractions like phone, conversation, and radio commentary.
  • Choose safe routes.
  • Go to a driving school to be evaluated.
  • Seek a doctor’s recommendation on “ability to still drive.”

Stopping the Driving — When & How?

If these self-evident tips in the table cannot be followed then it is time to have a conversation with the driver about their own safety and the safety of others. These conversations are hard. They cannot be threats but the tone must be on safety and the well-sbeing of the individual. If a suggestion is to cease driving, then there needs to be a very well written plan that addresses the independence of the person and importantly fulfilling all transportation needs. Taking the keys away from a driver or disconnecting the battery so the car cannot start are last resorts, along with taking the driver to the highway department for a test with the real possibility of a legal loss of license. All of us may come to the time when our driving ability is not adequate for safe automobile piloting. When we reach that point, it is time to stop driving.

The Bottom Line

Driving is a sure sign of independence. It is also the primary method of transportation upon which we are totally dependent for much daily activity and needs. There are many things that can and should be done to preserve driving competence, but when those fail it becomes a matter of healthy aging to find other means of transportation and to stop driving.