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Safety and the Senior Driver

Help keep older motorists safe behind the wheel.

Safety and the Senior Driver

Driving is something most people take for granted. Have to go someplace? Just hop in the car and drive. For older drivers with diminishing physical capabilities, though, driving may slowly change from easy to difficult to dangerous.

Talking to an older driver about parking their car for good is a delicate conversation. But for safety’s sake – theirs and that of other drivers – it’s a discussion that shouldn’t be avoided.

Facts about senior drivers

For the most part, seniors are safe drivers. They’re more diligent about wearing seat belts, observing speed limits and not getting behind the wheel after drinking. They also drive less after dark, avoid bad weather, and stay away from busy roads and intersections.

Still, based on miles driven, seniors are more likely to be injured or killed in traffic accidents due to weaker bodies. Driving also becomes more difficult due to age-related challenges such as declining vision and cognitive functioning, and medication side-effects.

Signs of declining driving skills

If you’re concerned about a senior driver, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do they get lost on familiar roads or get overwhelmed by signs, signals and road markings?
  • Are there new dents, scratches or damaged sections on their vehicle?
  • Have they had a recent ticket or been warned by the police about poor driving?
  • Have they had a near miss or accident recently?
  • Has their doctor suggested they stop driving?
  • Do they stop inappropriately or drive too slowly to be safe in traffic?

Other factors that may contribute to declining driving skills include:

  • Forgetfulness, confusion and disorientation
  • Unusual or excessive agitation
  • Trouble walking, swallowing, hearing or following verbal instructions
  • Dizziness, tripping and falling
  • Shortness of breath and general fatigue

Talking with older drivers about safe driving

If you have to talk to an older friend or family member about their driving, remember to be respectful. For many seniors, driving equals independence. Don’t dismiss their feelings. Instead, try to help with the transition as much as possible.

Refer to things you’ve observed. For example: “I noticed you have a harder time turning your head than you used to.” Or, “The last time we drove, you braked suddenly at three stop signs.”

If more than one family member voices a concern, it’s less likely to be taken as nagging.

Offer alternatives to driving such as public transportation, ride sharing, taxis or community shuttles.

If necessary, use a neutral, third-party evaluation or assessment. Many healthcare organizations offer driver evaluations through physical or occupational therapy. A neutral evaluation can point out possible shortcomings and can develop a specialized training plan to help an older driver continue to drive safely.

What a senior can do

The following practices can help older drivers keep themselves safe on the road:

  • Exercise regularly to increase strength and flexibility.
  • Choose a vehicle with automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes.
  • Review all medications – prescription and over-the counter – to ensure they don’t have effects that impair driving.
  • Have vision and hearing checked at least once a year, and always wear corrective devices, if required.
  • Drive only during daylight or good weather.
  • Find the safest route with well-lit streets and intersections.
  • Plan your route before you drive.
  • Leave a large distance between you the car in front of you.
  • Avoid distractions such as a radio or cell phone.

State intervention

If a senior driver is especially resistant to giving up driving, in most states, a family member can contact the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to ask for re-evaluation. If grounds are sufficient, the DMV may require a senior driver to retake a written or road test.

More information about talking to a senior driver is available in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s booklet “Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully” and “How to Understand and Influence Older Drivers

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