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 declines and reflexes get slower. As people age, they may even be more vulnerable than younger drivers to injuries from collisions.
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 Ali Azin, a driving rehabilitation specialist at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas. “Don’t turn ‘the talk’ into taking the keys away immediately.”
If you notice a relative is more forgetful or spot new dents in their car, Azin says it’s best to talk to them about their driving experience. Show concern for their safety and the safety of others. Consider going for a ride with your loved one, noting 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, Azin 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.
Driving symbolizes independence for many, so taking the keys away can be painful. Here are a few avenues to explore to help older drivers stay on the road with greater confidence for as long as possible.
Make a doctor’s appointment
A physical exam could help identify changes that may affect your loved one’s driving. It’s possible that medication, nutrition, vision, fitness levels and other health-related matters, may be factors that the doctor can treat to improve driving ability.
Undergo a driving evaluation
Your loved one’s driving safety 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 physician about getting a referral to the Scripps Driving Safety Evaluation program.
Add vehicle adaptations
The physical exam or driving evaluation may also be a good time to explore special techniques and equipment to help your loved one drive more safely and comfortably. Modifications may include seat boosters, hand controls, panoramic mirrors, thicker steering wheel rims and scooter lifts.
Set up a driving safety plan
Help your loved one retain their independence by setting up a driving agreement, such as driving only on familiar streets and during daylight hours when traffic is light.
Eventually, your loved one may need to stop driving. Gradually start using an alternative transportation plan before it becomes necessary to use it full-time, such as:
- Having a list of friends or volunteer organizations who can give rides.
- Figuring out which bus or train to take and going for a ride with your loved one to help him feel comfortable getting around town.
- Setting up a door-to-door shuttle service for older passengers.
“Don’t wait until your loved one is in an accident,” says Azin. “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.”