Is It Still Safe for Your Parents to Drive

Updated March 12, 2018 . AmFam Team

Are you worried about your elderly parents when they’re on the road? As parents age this concern can grow and it’s not a comfortable topic for most families. Use these tips to make a fair assessment of their driving skills.

Protecting your family is priority number one. And sometimes that means making difficult choices and having uncomfortable conversations. Talking to your parents about driving can be one of those hard discussions, but it's an important part of keeping them safe.

How to Check if Your Aging Parent is Fit to Drive

As people age they face issues that might make driving difficult or dangerous. Some challenges are obvious while others are harder to spot. And you should think about their overall health and awareness. Watch your parents go about their daily activities and see if they'e having troubles that might come into play when they're behind the wheel. You might find a closer inspection of their road skills is needed.

Inspect the car. Are there dents, dings and new damage? Small dents can be a sign that your parents aren't navigating as well as they used to.

Ride along. Have your parents take you for a spin — you can learn a lot from the passenger seat. Pay attention to some of the basics:

  • Do they see and respond to street signs?
  • Are they driving at a safe and legal speed?
  • When changing lanes, do they check for other cars and use their signals?
  • Are they drifting into the shoulder or across the lane?
  • Are they driving with confidence?
  • Do they seem confused or angry?
  • How's their response time when braking and reacting to traffic changes?

Ask for directions. Ask your parents to give you directions to a destination you know how to get to. Do they know how to get to there? Are they giving you the most direct path or a longer route? If they've suggested a longer way, ask them why. They might be avoiding heavy traffic, which can be an early sign they're uncomfortable driving.

Suggest a new route. Challenge their comfort zone by suggesting they come home from the store a different way, just to see how they handle an unfamiliar route. Routine paths can become second nature, but new surroundings could prompt confusion you wouldn't normally see.

Drive in construction. Even the best drivers can get frustrated and feel uncomfortable driving in construction zones. How do your parents handle this level of stress when they're driving? If they seem nervous or confused navigating the orange barrels, it might be time to limit their driving.

Ask them. The decision to stop driving shouldn't be made without your parent's input. Having this conversation early and staying on top of their driving skills helps everyone. You may find your parent has already self-corrected and stopped driving at night or in bad weather.

Getting a Doctor's Opinion: Can Your Parent Still Drive?

Your parent's doctors can play a big role in this decision and having this discussion with a professional can help everyone feel more confident about road safety.

Make sure your parents inform their doctor that it's okay to tell you about their medical conditions. There are strict patient confidentiality laws, so it's best to establish permission. It's important to note that the American Medical Association (AMA), while firm on patient confidentiality in most situations, does allow doctors to talk with their state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) if they feel there is risk to the public.

When you’re preparing to speak with your parent’s doctor, consider the following discussions or areas of concern.

Physical concerns. Do your parents have a temporary or long-term physical condition that may prevent them from driving? If so, discuss what the limitations are and, if temporary, how long the restrictions will last.

Mental check-up. Cognitive disorders tend to be more prevalent with age. A little forgetfulness is typically nothing to worry about. But if there is a more significant concern, the doctor can determine the best course of action and if driving is safe.

Useful field of view. Have the doctor check your parent's useful field of view (UFOV). This test checks the area where a person can extract information in a glance, without moving their head or eyes. The test isn't exact, but it's a good indicator of what can be seen at a glance. It's suggested that around a 40% reduction means the driver is no longer safe on the road.

Vision test. Eyesight tends to get worse with age and older people are more prone to cataracts, macular degeneration and glaucoma. It's not uncommon for elderly people who never needed glasses to find that they can't see as well as they used to. If your parents are having trouble on the road, perhaps their vision is to blame. If this is the case, their optometrist should have some suggestions to improve their vision.

Hearing test. A driver doesn’t necessarily need perfect hearing, but driving might be more difficult if they’ve relied on auditory clues in the past. A simple test could determine that hearing aids would be helpful if your parents want to continue driving.

Med check. Don't forget to have your parent's doctor or even their pharmacist review their medications. Prescriptions can come from multiple places and it's important to have an overall view of everything they're taking to see if there are any concerns. Some medicine combinations can cause confusion, shaking, vision problems and other health issues that can impair driving ability. Make sure that the medications aren't complicating or causing driving problems.

Occupational therapy driving evaluation. This test specifically rates driving ability and can even pinpoint ways your parent can improve their on-the-road performance. There are two parts to an O.T. driving evaluation — an in-office assessment and a road test. The therapist will be testing:

  • Reaction time. Can they stop fast enough to avoid a crash in normal situations?
  • Visual acuity. This eye test focuses on how vision plays into driving skills.
  • Decision making. Judgement and planning are key in this portion of the test.

Based on the evaluation, the occupational therapist can make recommendations about strategies to improve driving and possibly using specialized adaptive equipment like, pedal modifications, hand controls, support handles and more. They may also have some overall health recommendations that will help when your parent is behind the wheel.

The best approach to determining if your parents are still able to drive is to treat it like a joint venture. You're there to help your parents realize there might be a risk, but you shouldn't treat them like they're a child or make them feel they have no say.

Starting this discussion early is a good step so you can evaluate driving over time and see if there are changes. Small steps make the transition easier and you might find that they're already self-regulating. Be understanding and assure your parents that you're there to work with them to make sure that they're safe and help them maintain their mobility and independence.

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