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  • Writer's pictureCindy Davis

How Do I Know When It's Time to Stop Driving?


Image of elderly couple driving

Striking the right balance between older driver independence and safety.

For both young and old the ability to drive represents a key milestone, symbolizing freedom and autonomy. The car is more than a tool for mobility; it's a cherished emblem of independence. However, traveling the road is not without its bumps elevating the need to balance driving privileges with safety concerns. This tension was brought home to me in a stark and personal way in 2016, just months after moving my father to Dallas.


T-Bone Car Accident

While making a left-hand turn into a shopping center, my father's car was struck by an oncoming vehicle in a severe "T-bone" collision. Miraculously, he emerged unscathed. Shaken but determined, he managed to drive the damaged vehicle home, a decision we later discovered was incredibly risky—the impact had fractured the axle, rendering the car a total loss. His immediate desire to replace the vehicle sparked concern and a deep reflection on his ability to continue driving safely.

 

Faced with a situation many families dread, I turned to the Internet for guidance, stumbling upon the "Drivers 65 Plus: Check Your Performance" tool from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. This resource proved invaluable, offering insights and considerations that had not crossed my mind. More importantly, it facilitated a crucial conversation with my father about his driving capabilities. After completing the assessment together, he recognized the risks himself, deciding against replacing the car and opening the door to discussions about alternative transportation options.

 

This episode in our family's story underscores the complexity of older adult driving—a theme we will explore in this two-part series. We’ll delve into the intricacies of senior driving, shedding light on the indicators that signal when it might be time for an intervention and providing evidence-based considerations to help guide these challenging conversations. Through this exploration, we aim to support families and older drivers alike in making informed decisions that prioritize safety without compromising independence.

Are Older Drivers Really Safer Than We Think?

Contrary to popular belief, older drivers often exemplify caution and responsibility on the road. Their experience, coupled with a tendency to adopt sensible driving habits, significantly contributes to their safety profile. Additionally, seniors typically drive fewer miles compared to younger drivers, inherently minimizing their risk of being involved in traffic accidents.


Elderly woman driving a car

The demographic landscape of drivers is shifting, especially as the baby boomer generation moves into their senior years. The growth in the number of licensed drivers over the age of 65 is a testament to this trend. By 2021, there were an estimated 49.6 million licensed senior drivers or approximately nine in ten seniors, marking an 80% increase from 27.6 million two decades prior. Looking forward, projections suggest that by 2030, between 85% to 90% of the estimated 73 million Americans over the age of 65 will hold a driver's license, equating to about 65 million licensed senior drivers.

 

This significant representation of older adults in the driving population underscores not only the advancements in healthcare that allow for longer, healthier lives but also the importance of mobility and independence for seniors. These statistics challenge the narrative surrounding older drivers, suggesting that, with the right precautions and ongoing assessment of driving abilities, seniors can continue to be active, safe participants on the road.

 

What Risks Do Older Drivers Face?

While older drivers bring a wealth of experience to the roads, they also face unique challenges that can heighten their risk in traffic incidents. One stark reality is their increased likelihood of serious injury or fatality if involved in a crash. As individuals age, their bones become more fragile, and the prevalence of medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes complicates recovery from accidents. Consequently, the consequences of collisions are often more severe for older adults, with a higher rate of poor outcomes following a crash, notably due to chest and head injuries.

 

Statistical evidence from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) underscores the gravity of these risks. In 2021, it was reported that 7,529 individuals aged 65 and older died in traffic crashes, representing 17.5% of all traffic fatalities. Another 244,092 were treated for crash injuries. This translates into 21 seniors killed daily and nearly 669 injuries every day among this age group. Unfortunately, adults over 65 faced a 6% spike in deaths due to car accidents to 8,000 as opposed to most other age groups that saw a lower number of car crash-related deaths in 2022 versus 2021. At all ages, males had higher per capita crash death rates than females with approximately 70% of the deaths attributed to male drivers.


Chart showing Traffic Crash Fatalities 2021 vs. 2021
Traffic Crash Fatalities 2021 vs. 2021

NHTSA estimates that the majority of people killed in traffic crashes involving older drivers are 65 and older. About 66% of the deaths in 2021 were either the older driver or their passenger, also 65 years of age or older.

Chart of Trends in Older Adult Fatalities 2008-2021
Trends in Older Adult Fatalities 2008-2021

Further in 2021, one of every three crash deaths occurred between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. The majority of traffic fatalities involving older drivers occur during daytime (73%), on weekdays (69%), and involve other vehicles (67%) at intersections. Many crashes are multi-vehicle, low-speed events at intersections, often involving left-hand turns. Common causes include inadequate surveillance, difficulty judging the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles, and medical events such as blackouts or seizures.

 

As the baby boomer generation ages, the proportion of licensed drivers over 65 continues to rise. With increased age comes increased vulnerability, necessitating ongoing dialogue with loved ones and healthcare providers and adherence to safety recommendations. By staying informed about red flags and adopting safe driving practices, older adults can mitigate risks and extend their driving years with confidence.

 

5 Clear Signs It May Be Time to Reevaluate Your Driving Abilities

Unsurprisingly, driving abilities inevitably change as you age. Recognizing when these changes signify a need for adjustment in driving habits or considering alternative transportation options is crucial for maintaining safety on the road, both for the drivers themselves and others. Here are concrete signs that indicate a change in driving activities may be warranted for seniors:


Graphic of 5 Signs You Need to Check Your Driving Abilities

1.     Increased Traffic Citations or Collisions

A noticeable increase in traffic citations, warnings, or involvement in collisions or "near misses" within the last two years serves as a clear indicator that your driving habits need to be reassessed. These incidents suggest that you may not be adhering to traffic laws as closely as necessary or may not be able to respond appropriately to driving conditions.

 

2.    Frequent Horn Honking and Aggressive Passing by Other Drivers

If other drivers often honk their horns or aggressively pass when you're driving within the speed limit, it might indicate that your driving is perceived as unpredictable or slow by others on the road. This external feedback could suggest that a reevaluation of your driving practices is due.

 

3.    Unexplained Damage to Vehicle or Property

Finding new scrapes, dents, or damage on your vehicle, garage, fence, mailbox, or curbs without recalling how they occurred is a significant red flag. This type of incident points to potential lapses in attention or control while driving or maneuvering your vehicle.

 

4.    Concerns Expressed by Family, Friends, and Neighbors

When family, friends, neighbors, or others express concern about your ability to drive safely, it's essential to take these observations seriously. The people closest to you are likely to notice changes in your driving skills and may offer valuable insights into your current driving abilities.

 

5.    Need for a Co-pilot

Relying on a "co-pilot" to help navigate or alert you to traffic situations indicates a dependency that could compromise driving safety. If you find it challenging to drive without someone assisting you, it may be time to consider if continuing to drive is the best option

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Addressing these signs proactively can help seniors maintain their independence while ensuring safety. Open discussions with family members, healthcare providers, and driving assessment professionals can aid in making informed decisions about the future of driving. Whether it's adjusting driving habits, restricting driving to certain times of day or specific conditions, or transitioning to alternative forms of transportation, the goal is to support you in navigating this transition smoothly, prioritizing safety and quality of life.

 

What Are the Red Flags for Driving Safely as an Older Adult?

As individuals age, the inevitable decline in vision, cognitive functions, and physical capabilities poses significant challenges to safe driving. The question arises: Can you continue to drive safely over the age of 65? Research and statistics offer insight into this critical issue, revealing that men, on average, outlive their driving capabilities by six years, whereas women do so by ten years. Surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a striking tendency among older drivers, with more than half of those surveyed indicating plans to cease driving in their 90s, and one in ten asserting they never intend to stop.

 

However, age itself is not the sole determinant of driving ability. Various medical conditions and the side effects of medications can hasten the decline in driving capabilities. Most older adults are managing at least one chronic medical condition, with many juggling several, including common ailments such as arthritis, hypertension, hearing impairments, heart disease, cataracts, dizziness, orthopedic issues, and diabetes.

7 Senior Driving Red Flags by Body Syste

It's crucial to recognize that having one or more of these conditions doesn't necessitate an immediate cessation of driving. Rather, the presence of these medical conditions, along with the use of medications to manage chronic illnesses, signals a need for an open dialogue with healthcare providers. This conversation can assess whether adjustments can be made to continue driving safely.

 

Moreover, it's essential for older adults to consult with their prescribing physicians, especially considering that over 75% report taking one or more medications. Alarmingly, less than a third of these individuals acknowledge the potential impact of their medications on driving ability. These discussions are not only pivotal in evaluating one's fitness to drive but also provide an opportunity to plan for alternative transportation methods, preparing for the eventual transition away from driving.

 

This nuanced approach, informed by personal health conditions and proactive conversations with loved ones and healthcare professionals, aims to navigate the complex landscape of older adult driving. By paying heed to these red flags and seeking guidance, seniors and their families can make informed decisions that prioritize safety while considering the desire for independence and mobility.

 

Check Your Vision, Cognition, and Physical Driving Abilities

After recognizing the five unmistakable signs that it might be time to reassess your driving capabilities, it's crucial to delve deeper into understanding the three most common underlying causes – vision deterioration, cognitive impairment, and physical limitations.

Graphic of the Signs of Possible Driving Problems
Signs of Possible Driving Problems

Vision Deterioration: Are Your Eyes Still Road-Ready?

Graphic of Vision Deterioration

As we age, our vision naturally changes, sometimes in ways that can significantly impact our driving. It's not just about how clearly we see objects at a distance; it's also about depth perception, peripheral vision, and how well we adjust to different lighting conditions. For seniors who value their independence but also prioritize safety, assessing your vision is a crucial step in determining your driving fitness.


Key Questions to Consider:

 

  • Road Clarity: Do you find it challenging to see road signs, lane markers, or pedestrians and cyclists clearly, especially under less-than-ideal lighting conditions like at dawn, dusk, or on overcast days?

  • Adjusting to Light: Are you having trouble transitioning from bright sunlight to shaded areas, or does the glare of oncoming headlights leave you momentarily blinded?

  • Visual Acuity and Perception: Have you noticed a decrease in your ability to distinguish colors, or does everything appear slightly blurred or tunnel-like, affecting your depth perception and spatial awareness?

 

Acknowledging these vision challenges is not about surrendering your keys at the first sign of trouble. Instead, it's about adapting and seeking interventions such as getting a new prescription for glasses, scheduling a cataract surgery, or adjusting your driving habits to ensure you remain both safe and mobile on your terms.

 

Cognitive Impairment: Is Your Mind Still Sharp on the Road?

Graphic for Cognitive Impairment

Cognitive abilities play a vital role in safe driving, encompassing everything from memory and attention to reaction time and decision-making. As we navigate the later chapters of our lives, it's natural for these cognitive functions to experience some degree of decline. However, when such changes affect our driving, it's crucial to take a step back and evaluate whether we're still capable of navigating the roads safely.

 

Key Questions to Consider:

 

  • Memory and Orientation: Do you find yourself forgetting your destination, struggling to remember the route, or unable to recall where you've parked?

  • Lane Discipline: Is maintaining your lane a challenge? Do you catch yourself drifting or making unintended lane changes?

  • Comprehension and Execution: Are traffic signs and signals becoming harder to follow? Do you hesitate or make incorrect decisions at intersections?

  • Adaptability: When faced with a new driving route, do you feel overwhelmed or require assistance to navigate successfully?

  • Traffic Judgement: Are you finding it difficult to judge the speed of oncoming traffic, leading to challenges when merging or at crosswalks?

  • Emotional Regulation: While driving, do you feel unusually frustrated, confused, or disoriented? Is controlling anger or managing sadness becoming an issue behind the wheel?

  • Learning and Concentration: Have you noticed a decline in your ability to learn new information, concentrate on driving tasks, or recognize familiar faces?

 

Recognizing the signs of cognitive impairment is a step towards ensuring both personal safety and the safety of others on the road. It's about making informed decisions—whether that involves seeking medical evaluation for underlying conditions, modifying driving habits, or considering alternative transportation options. Embracing these changes not only reflects a commitment to safety but also an adaptive approach to the evolving aspects of aging.

 

Physical Limitations: Can Your Body Keep Up With the Demands of Driving?

Graphic symbolizing Physical Limitations

Physical capabilities are foundational to the act of driving. Strength, flexibility, and coordination enable us to manage the vehicle safely, reacting swiftly to unexpected road conditions and navigating the complexities of traffic with ease. However, it's an undeniable fact that these physical abilities often decline as we age.

 

Key Questions to Consider:

 

  • Reaction Time: Are you finding it increasingly difficult to react promptly to sudden road hazards?

  • Vehicle Control: Do you struggle with gripping and turning the steering wheel, using the ignition key, or operating the car's pedals and controls?

  • Mobility: Is reaching to open doors, windows, or fastening your seat belt becoming a challenge? Are turning your head for checks or glancing over your shoulder for blind spots harder than it used to be?

  • Maneuvering: Do you face difficulties when reversing, making turns, or simply getting in and out of your car?

  • Balance and Coordination: Have you noticed a decline in your ability to maintain balance, coordinate movements, or start moving after being stationary?

  • General Physical Condition: Are there instances of unexplained numbness, weakness, severe headaches, or episodes of drowsiness and dizziness that could affect your driving?

 

Understanding the intersection between physical health and driving capabilities is not about loss. It's about making adjustments, seeking interventions (such as physical therapy, adaptive driving equipment, or medical treatment), and making informed decisions that prioritize safety and well-being. Whether it's modifying driving habits, using assistive devices, or exploring alternative transportation methods, the goal is to ensure that you remain active and independent, in alignment with your physical capabilities.

 

Understanding How Medical Conditions Impact on Driving Abilities

With increasing age, our bodies undergo various changes, some of which can significantly impact our ability to drive safely. Recognizing the role of medical conditions in affecting vision, cognition, and physical capabilities is crucial for maintaining driving safety and independence. Below is an overview on how key medical conditions may be contributing to a decline in driving skills.


Check Vision, Cognitive, and Physical Challenges to Medical Conditions
Alignment of Vision, Cognitive, and Physical Challenges to Medical Conditions

Arthritis

Physical: Arthritis causes pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility in joints, making it challenging to grip the steering wheel, operate car controls, and maneuver in and out of the vehicle.

 

Diabetes

Vision: Diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes, can impair vision, leading to difficulties in seeing road signs, lane markers, and other vehicles.

 

Cognition: Diabetes can lead to cognitive impairments if blood glucose levels are not well-managed, affecting attention, decision-making, and reaction times.

 

Physical: Neuropathy, another complication of diabetes, affects nerves in the extremities, potentially reducing sensitivity in the feet, which is critical for controlling pedals.

 

Alzheimer’s Disease

Cognition: Alzheimer’s affects memory, judgment, and spatial orientation, making it hard to remember routes, follow traffic signs, and judge distances and speeds accurately.

 

Parkinson’s Disease

Physical: Parkinson’s can cause tremors, stiffness, and bradykinesia (slowness of movement), impairing the ability to grip and maneuver the steering wheel and operate vehicle controls smoothly.

 

Stroke

Vision: Strokes can result in partial vision loss or impairments, complicating the ability to perceive the full driving environment.

 

Cognition: Cognitive functions can be affected by a stroke, leading to challenges with attention, memory, and spatial awareness.

 

Physical: A stroke may cause weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, limiting the ability to control the vehicle and react quickly to road conditions.

 

Sleep Apnea

Cognition: Untreated sleep apnea leads to daytime drowsiness, decreased attention, and slower reaction times, which are detrimental to driving safety.

 

Physical: The fatigue associated with sleep apnea can also affect physical strength and endurance, essential for long periods of driving.

 

Macular Degeneration

Vision: This condition primarily affects central vision, making it difficult to see objects directly ahead, such as road signs and signals, and to recognize faces and vehicles.

 

Glaucoma

Vision: Glaucoma primarily affects peripheral vision, which is crucial for detecting hazards and navigating traffic safely.

 

Being proactive in managing these conditions is key. Regular medical check-ups, appropriate treatments, and adjustments to driving habits can help mitigate the impact of these medical conditions on driving abilities. Whether through medication management, physical therapy, or the use of adaptive driving aids, there are steps you can take to ensure safety on the road. Additionally, open discussions with healthcare providers about the effects of these conditions on driving can lead to informed decisions about when it might be time to modify driving habits or explore alternative transportation options.

Traveling the Road Ahead

As we journey through the last chapters of life, it's clear that driving calls for a complex interplay between maintaining cherished independence and recognizing the inevitable changes that come with aging. The road may have its bumps, but with the right knowledge and adjustments, it's possible to navigate these challenges safely and confidently.

 

We've explored the crucial areas of vision, cognition, and physical capabilities, shedding light on how changes in these domains can impact driving. Recognizing the signs of deterioration in these areas is the first step towards addressing the risks that come with aging behind the wheel. Moreover, understanding how specific medical conditions can influence our driving abilities has underscored the importance of proactive health management and open communication with loved ones and healthcare professionals.

 

Driving is not just about the ability to operate a vehicle; it's also about making quick decisions, reacting to unexpected situations, and adapting to the dynamic environment of the road. As such, it's essential to regularly evaluate our driving capabilities, considering the impact of aging and medical conditions on your overall safety and that of others on the road.

 

As recommend a review of the previous installment in our older adult driving series – Senior Driving Safety Strategies to Preserve Independence – where we focus on empowering strategies and actionable steps to extend the ability to continue driving safely. From embracing technology and adaptive equipment to refreshing your driving skills through education and training, there are many avenues to explore. We'll delve into how adjustments in driving habits, coupled with leveraging community resources, can contribute to a safer driving experience.

 

Safety on the road is a shared responsibility, and by taking charge of your health, staying informed, and making necessary adjustments, we can all contribute to a safer driving environment.


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