Older Drivers

Finding Out About Driving Problems

Declining Skills

Many adults suffer a decline in physical and thinking abilities as they age. These changes can affect driving skills. Unfortunately, many older drivers have difficulty recognizing and accepting these changes in their skills. Because the changes happen slowly, they may not recognize that a true loss of ability is occurring. Sometimes, they are aware but may not want to admit that they no longer drive safely, and they can endanger themselves, their passengers, pedestrians, or other drivers. Older drivers with dementia or other cognitive impairments may lack the insight to identify a problem at all.

Driving Behaviors To Watch for

Since many older drivers may not realize the changes that are occurring, it is important that family members and friends pay extra attention and actively observe the older person’s driving skills.

The person observing should watch the older adult drive at different times of the day, in different types of traffic, and in different road conditions and weather. If riding with the driver is not possible, the observer may wish to follow the driver in another vehicle. Over time, a picture will emerge of things the driver can do well and things the driver may not do as well.

The person observing should be paying attention to make sure that the driver

  • stops at all stop signs and looks both ways to check for cross traffic
  • stops at red lights
  • appropriately yields the right-of-way
  • responds properly to other vehicles, motorcyclists, bicyclists, pedestrians, and road hazards
  • merges and changes lanes safely
  • stays in the lane when driving straight and making turns (especially left turns)
  • is not having trouble moving the foot between the gas and the brake pedals, or confusing the two

In addition, you want to observe whether the person is

  • slowing or stopping inappropriately, such as at green lights or in intersections
  • driving too fast for road conditions
  • driving so slowly as to impede the safe flow of traffic
  • driving aggressively
  • getting lost routinely on routes that should be familiar for the driver

Obviously, some of these driving behaviors pose an immediate concern. Drivers must stop at red lights and stop signs, and yield to other cars as the traffic laws require. Failure to do these things puts the driver and others at extreme risk and requires immediate action to stop the driver.

Other Signs of Driving Problems

If it’s not possible to observe the older person when they drive (the observer might be the one doing the driving when both go someplace together), there are other signs which may indicate that an older driver is having problems at the wheel.

  • vehicle crashes
  • new dents or dings in the car
  • observations by neighbors or friends about unsafe driving
  • two or more traffic tickets, warnings, collisions or “near misses” within the last two years
  • increases in car insurance premiums because of collisions or traffic violations
  • poor vision, or degeneration of current vision
  • anxiety about driving at night
  • complaints about the speed of other drivers, or the sudden lane changes or actions or other drivers
  • declines in cognitive abilities, such as loss of control, delayed reactions due to confusion, or poor reflexes
  • a recommendation from a doctor to modify driving habits or quit driving entirely.

Questions To Ask

Asking these questions can provide answers which may tell you about an older driver’s current driving habits and abilities.

  • Do you get lost often, even in neighborhoods you’re familiar with?
  • Have you cut back on your driving because you’re may be unsure of your abilities?
  • Do you have trouble maintaining control of the car?
  • Have you recently had any accidents, even small ones?

But do keep in mind that an older adult who is cognitively impaired may not have the memory or insight to provide accurate answers. If you or other friends and family have noticed changes in memory or thinking ability, don’t rely on answers to questions like those above.

Other Reasons for Driving Problems

Even when older people are not in the car, their actions, statements, or even the way they look may cause you concern or may indicate a problem that could threaten their safety and the safety of others when they are driving. Some of these things may be triggered by major events happening in the person’s life, such as the loss of a spouse, moving to a new home, or a change in medications.

No single sign can be taken as a warning that the person is at risk or is an unsafe driver. But if family or friends frequently observe the following behaviors or signs, this can indicate a person is at risk if he or she continues to drive.

  • forgetfulness (frequent and combined with other signs)
  • unusual or excessive agitation
  • confusion and disorientation
  • loss of coordination and trouble with stiffness in joints
  • trouble walking, swallowing, hearing, or following verbal instructions
  • dizziness when changing positions
  • tripping and falling
  • shortness of breath and general fatigue
  • difficulty following verbal instructions and/or not responding appropriately to those instructions.

Medical Conditions and Driving Problems

Also, certain diseases that are more common with age such as arthritis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and visual problems including cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration can lead to behaviors which can affect a person’s ability to drive.

Document Your Observations

Family members and friends should make a list of suspected driving issues to discuss with the older adult driver. Make sure to document individual events or accidents to be able to recognize trends accurately. Documented observations can also be useful when consulting with an older adult’s doctor, to get an informed opinion on the situation. It can be helpful to speak to a doctor before taking further action, in order to know what is the best plan of action for a loved one.