The Car The Talks

Older Driver Red Flags

Cindy Davis
Written by Cindy Davis

Older adult vision deterioration, cognitive impairment, and physical limitations impact on driving ability.

Can you continue to safely drive over the age of 65? 

Experts estimate that men live six years beyond their ability to drive and women outlive their ability by 10 years.  A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more than half the drivers surveyed reporting they would stop driving sometime in their 90s, and one in 10 reported they never plan to stop driving.  So at what age should you stop driving?

Age alone is not a red flag for driving ability. 

Medical conditions and medications side effects can accelerate the decline in your driving capabilities.  Most older adults have at least one chronic medical condition and many have multiple conditions, with the most common being arthritis, hypertension, hearing impairments, heart disease, cataracts, dizziness, orthopedic impairments, and diabetes. 

Senior Driving Red Flags by Body System

Keep in mind the presence of one or more of these conditions does not automatically mean you have to stop driving immediately.  Instead the presence of these medical conditions and taking of medications to treat a chronic condition are an indication that you may need to have a discussion with your health care providers to see if there are changes you can make to keep driving safely.  It’s important to have a talk with each of your prescribing physicians as more than 75% of older adults report taking one or more medications, but less than 33% recognize that their medications may have an impact on their ability to drive a car. These discussions with your doctor are also a great opportunity to start talking about making a plan for how to get around once it’s time to put away the car keys.

What are the signs seniors should change driving activities?

Signals you may need to take a closer look at your diving competence include being:

  1. Issued two or more traffic citations or “warnings” in the last two years;
  2. Involved in two or more collisions or “near misses” in the prior two years;
  3. Hounded by other drivers that honk their horns at you or aggressively pass you even when you’re within the speed limit;
  4. Bewildered when scrapes or dents appear on your car, garage, fence, mailbox, and curbs;
  5. Questioned by family, friends, neighbors, and others as to whether you can drive safely; and Supported on drives with a co-pilot to help navigate and alert you to traffic situations.

There are three areas to investigate – your vision, cognitive, and physical skills.  Although many people experience a decline in these skills as they get older, these changes occur at different rates, and older adults experience functional changes to different degrees.  Based on our research, here are some questions to help guide you on where to focus in each skill area, plus a list of medical conditions that may be contributing to a negative response to a given question.

Older Adult Red Flags to Change or Stop Driving

Vision Deterioration

Eyesight changes as you age.  When you’re driving, do you have trouble seeing:

  • The road, street signs, lane markers, and people or cyclists in your path;
  • At dawn, dusk, night, or on a cloudy day;
  • In one or both eyes, and/or experiencing double images in one eye; and
  • Things out of the corner of your eye because your peripheral (side) vision is weakened?

Does light bother you in these ways?

  • Sunlight is too bright.
  • Glare from headlights temporarily blinds you.
  • Going from bright light to low light takes more than usual time to adjust.
  • Need more bright light to see things up close.

Do you find that:

  • Colors look faded, less vivid, or not bright?
  • Your vision is dull or blurry?
  • It seems like you are looking through a tunnel?

Have you been diagnosed with one or more of the following medical conditions that are known to contribute to vision problems?

  • Cataracts
  • Macular Degeneration
  • Glaucoma
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Stroke

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, we recommend you use the “Drivers 65 Plus:  Check Your Performance:  A Self-Rating Tool with Facts and Suggestions for Safe Drivers” from AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and follow the guidance in the 8 Things Older Adults Can Do to Keep Driving post. 

Cognitive Impairment

Medical conditions or the side effects of prescription drugs often impact your cognitive abilities.  When you’re driving, do you have trouble

  • Remembering where you are going, how to get there, or where you parked your car;
  • Staying in your driving lane and not drifting across lane markings into other lanes or straddling lanes;
  • Following traffic lights and road signs; Learning a new route so you require more than normal directions or a co-pilot;
  • Gauging gaps in traffic at street crossings and on highway ramps making it difficult to merge in traffic;
  • Determining what to do so you stop at a green light or hit the brakes at the wrong time; or
  • Keeping pace with the flow of traffic so you either drive too fast or too slowly?

How do you feel when driving?  Do you find yourself

  • Easily frustrated, confused, or disoriented;
  • Unable to control your anger or sadness, so you’re irritable or depressed?

In general, do you struggle with

  • Learning and retaining new information;
  • Concentrating and focusing on a desired task;
  • Speaking and understanding what other are saying or doing; and
  • Recognizing other people’s faces.

Have you been diagnosed with one or more of the following medical conditions that are known to contribute to cognitive impairment problems?

  • Macular Degeneration
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Stroke
  • Sleep Apnea

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, we recommend you use the “Drivers 65 Plus:  Check Your Performance:  A Self-Rating Tool with Facts and Suggestions for Safe Drivers” from AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and follow the guidance in the 8 Things Older Adults Can Do to Keep Driving post. 

Physical Limitations

As we age, physical strength and flexibility decline.  When you’re driving, do you have trouble:

  • Reacting quickly to road hazards;
  • Gripping and turning the steering wheel and ignition key;
  • Pressing the accelerator, brake, and /or clutch;
  • Reaching over to open doors or windows and fasten seat belt;
  • Turning your head quickly and fully to look both ways at an intersection and for oncoming traffic;
  • Glancing over your shoulder to check for cars in your blind spot;  
  • Reversing into or out of a parking space;  
  • Making left and right turns safely; or
  • Getting into or out of the car?

Are there changes in your general ability to:

  • Keep your balance and coordination or starting to move once you have been still for a period of time;
  • Walk or control your body movements – your arms, hands, or legs shake even when you’re relaxed;
  • Bend or move your shoulders, hips, hands, head, neck; or
  • Stay awake?

Have you experienced:

  • Numbness or weakness in your face, arms, or legs;
  • Severe headache without a known cause;
  • Temporary or permanent weakness or paralysis on one side of your body; or
  • Drowsiness, dizziness, seizure, or loss of consciousness?

Have you been diagnosed with one or more of the following medical conditions that are known to contribute to physical strength and mobility problems?

  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Stroke
  • Sleep Apnea

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, we recommend you use the “Drivers 65 Plus:  Check Your Performance:  A Self-Rating Tool with Facts and Suggestions for Safe Drivers” from AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and follow the guidance in the 8 Things Older Adults Can Do to Keep Driving post. 

Sources:

AAA Conversations About Driving, Facts and Research: https://seniordriving.aaa.com/resources-family-friends/conversations-about-driving/facts-research/

Clinicians Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers: https://geriatricscareonline.org/ProductAbstract/clinicians-guide-to-assessing-and-counseling-older-drivers-4th-edition/B047

About the author

Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis

Serial entrepreneur and former full-time caregiver for eight years to her father with multiple chronic conditions. A graduate of Dartmouth College with a Bachelor of Arts in Pre-Medicine and Asian Studies; and a Master of Business Administration degree recipient in marketing and finance from UCLA Anderson Graduate School of Management. Currently lives in Dallas, Texas with her teenage son and advises businesses on strategic planning, marketing, finance, and operations as owner of Next Level Consulting, Inc.

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