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Driving is one of the first things that we equate with our independence. It's only natural that we want to hold on to our ability to drive for as long as possible. But, as we age, our driving abilities begin to change. Everyone ages differently, so there is no arbitrary cutoff as to when we should stop driving, and assessing a person's driving ability should never be based on age alone. By reducing risk factors and incorporating safe driving practices, many of us can continue driving safely long into our senior years. However, we should pay attention to warning signs that age is interfering with driving safely.
Many studies have shown that older adults are more likely to receive traffic citations and get into accidents than younger drivers. In fact, fatal crash rates rise sharply after a driver has reached the age of 70. What causes this increase? As we age, factors such as decreased vision, impaired hearing, slowed motor reflexes, and chronic diseases that affect our physical health, may become a problem.
Aging tends to result in a reduction of strength, coordination and flexibility, which can have a major impact on the ability to safely control a vehicle. For example:
- Pain or stiffness in the neck can make it harder to look over your shoulder to change lanes or back up, or look left and right at intersections to check for other traffic or pedestrians
- Leg, hip and back pain can make it difficult to move your foot from the gas to the brake pedal
- Diminished arm strength can make it hard to turn the steering wheel quickly and effectively
- As reaction times slow with age, you may be slower to spot vehicles emerging from side streets and driveways, or to realize that a vehicle in front of you has slowed or stopped
- Maintaining focus becomes increasingly difficult as you lose the ability to effectively divide your attention between multiple activities (signs, signals, other traffic, pedestrians)
If you find yourself in the position of talking to an older family member or friend about their driving, remember the following:
- Be respectful. For many seniors, driving is an integral part of independence. Many older adults have fond memories of getting a driver's license. At the same time, don't be intimidated or back down if you have a true concern.
- Give specific examples. It's easier to tune out generalizations like "You just can't drive safely anymore." Outline concerns that you have noticed, such as "You have a harder time turning your head than you used to," or "You braked suddenly at stop signs three times the last time we drove."
- Find strength in numbers. If more than one family member or close friend has noticed, it's less likely to be taken as nagging. A loved one may also listen to a more impartial party, such as a doctor or minister.
There are many self-assessments available to you and your loved one to help evaluate driving capabilities. The Caregivers Library has a driving assessment checklist to help you determine if it is safe for you or a loved one to continue driving. AAA has a useful website that provides information about senior driving, written and interactive driving assessments, choosing the right car, and access to senior driving refresher courses. Just visit http://seniordriving.aaa.com/. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has produced an e-book, Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully, which provides information that can help you recognize physical changes that may pose safety problems, as well as recommendations for alternative forms of transportation.
Sometimes an older driver has to be stopped from driving over their objections. It might feel very difficult for you to make this call, especially if the senior is a parent or close friend. However, their safety and the safety of others must come first. An unsafe driver can seriously injure or kill themselves and others.
When you speak with a loved one about their driving, it is helpful to have a list of alternative transportation modes for them to access. Having these resources available can help them feel more in control of their independence and help them overcome the fear of being isolated. Transportation services, such as those provided by Lifeline Homecare, can be a great alternative for loved ones who are still able to shop, go to church, and visit friends, but who just need help with transportation.
If no amount of rational discussion has convinced your loved one to hand over their car keys, then you may make an anonymous report to your state's Department of Motor Vehicles or talk to the person's physician about your concerns. In some cases, there is a need to take further actions such as taking away the car keys, selling or disabling the car, enlisting local law enforcement to explain the importance of driving safely and the legal implications of unsafe driving.