By Krisha McCoy Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Running stop signs and getting lost are indicators it may be time to give up your driver’s license.license.
Getting older doesn’t automatically mean that you shouldn’t be behind the wheel; however, regularly monitoring your driving abilities is an important part of maintaining senior health because there comes a point for nearly everyone when reflexes slow and vision deteriorates, making driving no longer safe for you and others on the road. This is especially true for people who have age-related health conditions, such as dementia.
Today, one in six American drivers is 65 and older, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. It’s estimated that the age group will grow to more than 40 million drivers by 2020. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that fatal crashes per mile traveled increase at about age 70 and peak at age 85 and older.
Assessing Your Driving Ability
Many seniors resist giving up their cars, says Gary J. Kennedy, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist, professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and director of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. In fact, even when loved ones voice concerns about their abilities behind the wheel, seniors often don’t want to give up the independence that a car symbolizes. A 2012 survey by AAA reported that almost 90 percent of senior drivers polled said losing their license would be problematic for their lives.
Some of the health conditions that may threaten a person’s ability to sit behind the wheel include:
Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease
Problems with hearing or vision
Any conditions that require medications that could impair driving ability, such as anti-anxiety drugs, narcotics, and sleeping pills
But making a decision about driving isn’t so much disease-specific as it is about driving performance, Dr. Kennedy says. When Parkinson’s or arthritis causes stiffness that’s so severe it impairs reaction time, that’s a sign you should stop driving.
Related: Do You Have Inactivity Disease? Here’s How to Treat It
Another red flag is whether you’ve reached age 85. Around that time, even healthy people will experience slowed reaction time and trouble with visual acuity, Kennedy says. Hearing may also be an issue for some at that age.
For Kennedy, the deciding factor is whether you are allowed to drive with children in the car. If the answer is no, it’s time to give up driving.
Before that point, one or more of the following driving restrictions may be an alternative to completely giving up driving:
Avoid driving at night and in bad weather
Drive only in familiar places
Drive only within a certain radius of home
Stay off of expressways
Limit distractions while driving by turning off the radio and other noises, avoiding conversations with people in the car, and not texting or using a cell phone.
Occupational therapists can help you drive more safely, as well. You can find one through the American Occupational Therapy Association.
Stop Signs for Older Drivers
There are some other clear indicators that it’s no longer safe to drive, Kennedy says. They include:
Stopping at green lights or when there is no stop sign
Getting confused by traffic signals
Running stop signs or red lights
Having accidents or side-swiping other cars when parking
Getting lost and calling a family member for directions
Hearing from friends and acquaintances who are concerned about a senior’s driving
When you do have concerns about your own or a loved one’s driving, one option is to request a driving evaluation, which can be performed at a rehabilitation center, driving school, or state licensing agency.
There are also physical therapy centers that can run tests to measure a person’s reaction time and vision, along with testing the ability to safely drive through an obstacle course, Kennedy says.
Adjusting to Life Without Driving
When older adults are adamant about not giving up their licenses, sometimes family members have to take action themselves by disabling the car or taking it away, Kennedy says.
When driving is no longer possible, you can reduce your need for transportation by taking advantage of delivery services for groceries, meals, and medications and even try at-home service providers, such as a hairdresser. You can also explore other options for transportation, including:
Family and friends. Ask loved ones about setting aside time to drive you to the places you need to go.
Eldercare providers. Look into senior health or eldercare services that provide transportation.
Mass transit. If your city offers it, reacquaint yourself with the public bus or train system, which may be a fast and inexpensive form of transportation.
Paratransit. Many communities offer paratransit, in which a driver will pick you up at home and take you where you need to go.
Making the transition from being an independent driver to being a passenger can be difficult. However, creating a network of alternative transportation arrangements to get you where you need to be can go a long way toward helping you adjust.
Marie Suszynski also contributed to this report.