When Should Elders Stop Driving?

Learn how to determine if a senior can drive safely.

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For many elders, and their loved ones, determining when they are no longer safe on the road is a difficult and heart wrenching process -- but ignoring the issue can be dangerous.

According to a recent study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the AAA Foundation for traffic Safety, drivers 65 and over are more likely to get in traffic accidents than younger drivers. And those 85 and older log a fatality rate nearly four times higher than that for teens. On the flip side, senior drivers cause fewer pedestrian and motorist deaths and are more likely to follow safety rules such as wearing seatbelts and not drinking and driving.

So when does an older driver -- or a concerned family member or friend -- know when it's time to turn in the keys?

Monitor Changes That May Affect Driving Ability

Age alone is a poor predictor of driving skills. But for most people, age-related changes in vision, physical fitness, and reflexes creep in over the years and can hamper the ability to drive safely. Keep tabs on the following areas and ask yourself whether they inhibit driving ability.

Changes in vision and hearing. A loss of visual acuity can make it harder for drivers to see essential traffic signs, lane lines, and other drivers and pedestrians. Conditions common for older eyes -- cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration -- make it harder for drivers to see, and may also limit peripheral vision. A sensitivity to light at night, or night vision, can make the glare of oncoming headlights dangerous. And the loss of hearing can mean usual signals used to alert drivers, such as horns and sirens, go unheeded.

Limitations in physical fitness. A loss of muscle strength and flexibility can make it more difficult to steer, maneuver, grip the steering wheel, and pivot the head to check for traffic in the blind spot before changing lanes.

Slowed reflexes. Slower reflexes mean it may take a longer time for a driver to react to traffic signals, unexpected behavior in pedestrians and other motorists, and to gauge appropriate speeds.

Side effects of medication. People age 65 and older consume more prescription and over-the-counter medicines than any other age group. Taken alone or interacting with one another, medications may cause drowsiness or confusion and make it difficult to focus. Many also have the unexpected side effect of lowering tolerance for alcohol, which can notoriously affect driving skills.

General health conditions. Physical and mental conditions common to the older population, from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's disease, can also affect a driver's agility and judgment on the road.

Warning Signs of Driving Problems

It is often difficult to notice and regulate our own behavior. But it is usually preferable if an older driver notices his or her own diminished driving skills and takes action to improve or curtail driving voluntarily rather than being urged or directed to do so by another person.

If you are a driver over age 60, pay attention to whether you are having driving difficulties that may signal some signposts for concern, including:

  • receiving an increased number of tickets and warnings for traffic violations
  • frequently asking passengers for help in navigating traffic
  • bumping into other cars while parking, or
  • becoming easily angry, tense, or frustrated while driving.

How to Stay on the Road Longer

A growing number of older people are able to remain good drivers into advanced ages. In many cases, older drivers can stay on the road longer by taking advantage of programs and services available to help make that possible.

Driver refresher courses. Spending some time reviewing the rules of the road and getting behind the wheel with a trained instructor in the passenger's seat can reinforce safe driving practices. The AARP sponsors Driver Safety Courses nationwide, searchable by ZIP code at www.aarp.org or online at www.aarpdriversafety.org. And many local Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) branches also offer refresher courses, often referred to as Mature Driver improvement Programs. Some private driving schools also offer such courses.

License limitations. The DMVs in all states issue restricted licenses, which may be particularly useful for older drivers. The most common restriction requires the driver to wear glasses or contact lenses while behind the wheel.

Other restrictions include:

  • no freeway driving
  • adding an additional right side mirror to the vehicle
  • no nighttime driving
  • restricted driving during certain times of day -- for example, no driving during rush hour traffic
  • using adequate support to ensure proper driving position
  • driving only in particular areas, and 
  • wearing bioptic telescopic lenses, on which a telescope is mounted on the lenses to increase acuity for drivers with vision problems.

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