Driving Safely As You Get Older

Driver safety programs help seniors stay behind wheel and know when to stop driving

Senior driver behind the wheel safely after passing driver safety evaluation.

Driver safety programs help seniors stay behind wheel and know when to stop driving

Driving safely is a matter of ability — not age. But here’s the hard truth: time can take a toll on your body and mind. When people grow older, their physical strength decreases, vision and hearing decline and reflexes get slower. As people age, they may even be more vulnerable than younger drivers to injuries from collisions.

There are more than 41 million licensed drivers age 65 and older, up from 26 million 20 years ago, according to the National Institute on Aging.

So, when is it time to think about having a conversation with older relatives if you’re concerned they may no longer be safe on the road?

“I can tell you what not to do,” says Jihad Jaffer, MD, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist a Scripps. “Don’t jump to conclusions and turn ‘the talk’ into taking the keys away immediately.”

Know the warning signs of an unsafe driver and seek expert help — including a driver safety evaluation — when necessary, he says.

Pay attention to the warning signs

If you notice a relative is more forgetful or spot new dents in their car, Dr. Jaffer says it’s best to talk to them about their driving experience. Show concern for their safety and the safety of others. Know that some older drivers have problems when yielding the right of way, turning, changing lanes, passing and using freeway ramps.

Consider going for a ride with your loved one to see how they drive. Keep in mind the following warning signs:

  • Forgetting to buckle up
  • Disobeying stop signs or traffic lights
  • Driving too slowly or too quickly
  • Getting lost in familiar areas
  • Reacting slowly to driving situations
  • Being honked at or passed often

If you notice any of these signs, Dr. Jaffer says the most important thing you can do is to discuss the issues with your loved one and show support by helping them explore ways to get around town safely with or without their car.

Helping seniors stay in the driver's seat

Driving symbolizes independence for many, so taking the keys away can be painful. Here are a few avenues to explore to help senior drivers stay on the road with greater confidence for as long as it is safely possible.

Make a doctor’s appointment

A physical exam could help identify changes that may be affecting your loved one’s driving. It’s possible that medication, nutrition, vision, hearing, fitness levels and other health-related matters, such as arthritis, may be factors that the doctor can treat to improve driving ability.

Undergo a driving evaluation

Your loved one’s driving abilities can be assessed through a comprehensive clinical exam and on-the-road test to determine what skills need to be addressed to resume driving safely. Ask your primary care physician about getting a referral to the Scripps Driving Safety Evaluation program.

The driving program at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas helps senior drivers, who have experienced or are managing symptoms related to age-related conditions, such as arthritis, dementia and stroke.

Occupational therapy and driving rehabilitation specialists use a series of standardized assessments to help determine whether it’s safe for someone to continue or resume driving. The driving program includes a clinical assessment, driving simulator and on-the-road testing in a dual-control car. The evaluation covers vision testing, reaction time (driving simulator), cognitive testing, endurance, active range of motion and strength, and coordination and sensation.

Call 760-633-6515 for more information or to schedule a driving evaluation. A doctor’s orders are required to participate.

Set up a driving safety plan

Help your loved one retain his or her independence by setting up a driving agreement, such as driving only on familiar streets during daylight hours when traffic is light and avoiding driving in bad weather or during sunrise or sunset when the sun can disrupt your line of vision. AARP offers online driver safety courses tailored for older adults. Participation may qualify you for a car insurance discount.

Upgrade your vehicle

You may also want to explore special techniques and equipment to help your loved one drive more safely and comfortably. AARP credits several technology upgrades for helping to reduce crashes among older drivers, including:

  • Rearview cameras to help seeing while backing up
  • Automatic emergency braking systems
  • Collision warning systems
  • Blind spot and lane-departure warning systems to avoid crashes while changing lanes

Be prepared for the conversation

Eventually, your loved one may need to stop driving. AARP offers an online seminar with tips on how to have that conversation, called We Need to Talk.

Be prepared to find alternative transportation

Consider gradually implementing an alternative transportation plan before it becomes necessary to use it full-time.

AARP encourages learning how to use ride-hailing and ride-sharing services and offers workshops on how to use apps like Uber and Lyft.

Also consider creating a list of friends, relatives, neighbors or volunteer organizations who can give rides. Or, you may consider going for a ride on a bus or train with your loved one to help him or her feel comfortable getting around in public transportation.

“Don’t wait until your loved one is in an accident,” says Dr. Jaffer. “If you’re on the fence about discussing driving safety with loved ones because you don’t want to hurt their feelings but fear they might hurt themselves or others on the road, then it’s a good time to go through these steps.”

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