There’s no doubt driving skills decline as a person ages. While some seniors are able to continue driving as much as they have in the past, many have to shorten their trips or eliminate driving altogether. While this is a huge adjustment and can oftentimes cause frustration and tension, there are things seniors and their families and caretakers can do to make it easier. Read on for the ultimate guide to seniors and driving.
Why Does Driving Ability Decline?
Of course, as we age, it is natural for our hearing, vision, reaction time, and physical strength to decline. If a senior’s vision isn’t as sharp as it once was, he or she may not be able to see stop signs, red (or green) lights, or other vehicles around them. Hearing loss - even mild hearing loss - can also affect driving, as seniors may not be able to hear things like sirens or other drivers honking.
Reaction times also naturally decline with age, as humans’ nerve fibers change over time and slow them down. A major consequence of lower reaction times is that they may increase the chances of an accident if a senior does not hit his or her brakes in time.
There is no doubt that aging also reduces the flexibility that we need to drive. Many seniors experience a lessening ability to move their necks to look over their shoulders. Pain and stiffness in the legs can affect the ability to move the foot from the gas pedal to the brake pedal. Arm, wrist, and hand pain can affect the ability to turn the steering wheel.
When Should a Senior Stop Driving?
It is impossible to give a definitive answer to this question, as it will be different for every senior. Some seniors are able to drive their entire lives, whereas others may have to reduce or stop driving earlier if they seem to be putting themselves and others at a greater risk. Sometimes, a sudden health incident like a heart attack can require a senior to stop driving, or worsening medical conditions such as glaucoma can gradually reduce the ability to drive.
Several studies have shown that seniors receive more traffic citations and get into more car accidents than younger generations. This can be frightening to the seniors and their caregiver(s) as well as other drivers. While it is an extremely hard decision - and conversation - to quit driving, seniors and their caregivers will likely be able to tell when it is time.
Simply stated, the time each specific senior stops driving, if ever, will vary.
Red Flags Indicating Seniors Should Stop Driving
Caretakers and loved ones should definitely pay attention to how seniors are driving and whether or not they should stop. Many seniors are hesitant and refuse to admit they aren’t the greatest behind the wheel, but they themselves should also make notes of issues. These red flags will be discussed in much more detail later, but basically everyone should be on the lookout for damage to seniors’ cars that may indicate they are not driving as safely as they used to. These can range from small dings to large dents, and it is important to determine what happened to cause them. Many seniors will deny that dings, dents, and accidents were their fault, but over time it may become obvious they are having trouble driving.
If a senior’s caretaker or a family member monitors bills and finances, he or she may want to be on the lookout for any changes to the senior’s car insurance prices or any modifications to his or her policies.
Seniors may also begin to get more traffic tickets and get pulled over more often. Many police officers are more hesitant to give a ticket to sweet, older people compared to younger ones, but they will still pull seniors over if they are driving unsafely. An increasing number of citations or verbal/written warnings is definitely a sign the senior should reduce their time driving, as it is an indication that the senior is engaging in risky or poor driving habits.
Many seniors also begin failing to take basic safety measures while they are driving. This could include neglecting to use blinkers, driving with blinkers on, accidentally swerving into other lanes, forgetting to wear a seat belt, or braking and accelerating at inappropriate times. This can also include hitting the gas instead of the brake and vice versa.
The failure to notice and/or see traffic signals and other signs (e.g., stop signs, construction warnings, etc.) can also be a major warning that a senior’s ability to drive is impaired. This can be made even more of an issue if a senior begins to get frustrated or angry while driving. Frustration and anger can cause anyone to drive erratically and reduce their control of a vehicle, including seniors.
Getting anxious in certain situations while driving can also be an indication it may be time to reduce or stop driving. Seniors may get overwhelmed in certain situations such as large intersections because there is so much activity around that requires attention. Left turns can be extra nerve-wracking given that there are usually other cars coming towards the drivers turning left. This may indicate that a senior is starting to have trouble judging how fast other vehicles are going and if he or she has time to turn.
Along the same lines, if a senior is agitated or angry for any reason, it is best to wait until he or she calms down before getting behind the wheel. Strong emotions, including positive ones like happiness and excitement, have the ability to distract us and reduce the amount of attention we are giving to our driving.
Another major red flag that may indicate impaired driving ability is getting lost a lot. Many of us have experienced this at least once, and it can be very scary and anxiety-inducing. However, most of us had a good reason for being lost, as we may have been in a foreign place and unsure of where to go. Most of us have also missed an exit or two, but if a senior notices this happens often, they may want to assess their driving skills and see a doctor.
How Is Independence Affected?
Perhaps one of the chief complaints amongst seniors who have to stop driving is the loss of independence. Not being able to go wherever they want whenever they want can be aggravating, as they need a ride everywhere - even if they are just going to the grocery store. Depending on someone else every time they need to go somewhere can be angering and cause friction within their family and friend circles.
Seniors with impeccable driving records may feel their driving histories are great and they can have an especially hard time accepting that their driving skills aren’t as good as they once were. This group could include people in their 80s or older who have been good drivers since they were teenagers. Therefore, losing independence and being unable to drive can be quite an emotional experience for seniors.
Tips and Tricks for Seniors Who Do Drive
First and foremost, seniors must ensure they are healthy before getting behind the wheel. Visiting an optometrist to get their eyes checked out should be done at least once a year, and even more than that if there are potential problems. This includes glaucoma, which becomes more common as we age. Also, as we age, our pupils naturally get smaller and the muscles around our eyes lose some of their elasticity, meaning more light is required for us to be able to see, especially at night. Eye doctors can normally prescribe special glasses that reduce the glare that seniors may have with their regular glasses. Seniors should definitely tell their doctors if their glasses or corrective lenses don’t seem to be working, as they may just need to tweak their prescription a bit.
As mentioned, a loss of hearing can also be detrimental to seniors’ ability to drive. Seniors who have hearing aids should most definitely wear them while they are driving as well as avoid anything that can impact hearing, such as keeping the radio on loud and rolling windows down. These can distract any driver and render them unable to hear their surroundings and react appropriately.
Blood pressure monitoring is also critical for seniors, as many have blood pressure that is too high, too low, or fluctuates greatly. High blood pressure can put anyone at risk for a heart attack or stroke, which could be devastating during driving. Seniors should ask their doctors what can be done for any blood pressure issues, as most can regulate theirs with medication or a different diet. A cardiovascular check is also advised to make sure the body’s heart and blood flow mechanisms are working properly.
Physicians regularly check patients for diabetes mellitus as well, which is a smart move because low or high blood sugar can also alter awareness or cause other issues like fainting or seizures. Many people - even seniors - may have diabetes but not be aware of it, so that is why a simple blood test should be done. It is important to note that diabetes alone may not necessarily require a senior to stop driving as long as he or she takes the proper measures to keep it under control.
Seniors should ask their doctors to do respiratory checks as well. These can reveal any red flags regarding the seniors’ breathing such as asthma and emphysema. Shortness of breath and lack of oxygen can lead to fainting or losing control of a vehicle. A physician can also determine if a senior may need supplemental oxygen or some sort of anti-blood clotting medication. Of course, breathing is a necessity, so being able to do so can help keep seniors safe while driving.
A neurological evaluation is also not a bad idea, as it can determine if a senior has balance problems, attention issues, or poor reflexes. Physicians would likely advise against driving if any neurological problems arise, as driving requires people to pay attention and have the ability to think quickly when needed. If any cognitive deterioration is noted by a physician, he or she may advise the senior to stop driving.
Physicians should, of course, do a physical exam to test how flexible seniors are and their range of motion. The most obvious red flag may be a lack of flexibility in the neck, but other limbs also need to be functional in order to drive. If a senior is not physically able to carry out all of the bodily necessities to drive due to pain or any other limitation, he or she may be advised against getting behind the wheel. A physician may also order some form of physical therapy that may help a senior regain some flexibility so he or she does not need to give up driving completely.
Driving while tired is also something seniors need to avoid, as lack of sleep has been proven to cause more accidents and a reduced ability to make judgment calls and quick movements, therefore impacting the capacity to engage in proper defensive driving. We have all experienced how being overly tired can make us a bit aloof and not as “sharp,” so seniors should make sure they are well-rested before driving. Lack of sleep and tiredness can also increase the chances of some of the health conditions outlined above like blood pressure issues and diabetes. They can also affect seniors’ immunity and therefore make them vulnerable to infections and other issues like pneumonia, which can affect the ability to drive.
Seniors should also speak to their doctors about the medications they are on and how they may impact the ability to drive. Many prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications have side effects such as tiredness, dizziness, and grogginess, so seniors should ensure they are safe to drive on these medications. OTC medications that may seem benign such as certain cough syrups and allergy medications can have noticeable side effects that could be detrimental to anyone’s driving, which includes slower reflexes and less ability to make quick decisions. Getting extra advice and clarification from a pharmacist can also be a good idea. Also, seniors should make sure their physicians know what each other is prescribing and be knowledgeable about any side effects when they are combined.
Along the same lines, physicians may advise seniors to limit or eliminate alcohol from their diets if they are still actively driving. Some seniors’ metabolisms have slowed down over the years, and they may not “sober up” as much as they used to. Being vigilant of this can help avoid unwanted traffic incidents.
Keep the Mind Sharp
As we all age, our nervous systems begin to change and we may lose some of our “sharpness” over time. Solid mental acuity is critical for driving, so seniors should work to keep their minds sharp and suitable for being on the road. Mild to moderate exercise can keep blood flowing how it should, and maintaining a healthy diet provides necessary nutrition can certainly benefit the mind. Simple activities like drawing or coloring books can also boost the mind, and multi-person games such as bridge and other card games can provide both socialization and mental acuity. Even just socializing can be beneficial - in fact, the Alzheimer’s Association has reported that interacting with other people can help prevent or delay the onset of neurological conditions such as dementia.
A specialist can measure a senior’s mental acuity through various assessments, so seniors who may be experiencing a decline might want to seek one out. Doing so and getting great results could even make seniors more comfortable and confident with their driving skills and ability. Having confidence, in turn, will likely lessen anxiety and prevent seniors from driving fearfully.
First of all, it is critical for seniors to wear their seatbelts while driving. Seatbelts have been proven to reduce injuries and save lives in accidents, so putting one on can be very beneficial in the event of an unfortunate collision. Of course, many newer cars have the “bing bing bing” noise to notify drivers if seatbelts are not on; however, if a senior’s car doesn’t have this technology, he or she may want to put a reminder somewhere such as the dashboard or center console where he or she can see it when getting in the car.
In the event that a seatbelt is uncomfortable for some reason, a skilled mechanic can alter it. Seniors who are completely unable to twist to put on a seatbelt can have an automatic seatbelt installed. One in the car, the seatbelt will automatically move back and click into place. These were once standard on some older cars, but can still be installed on newer ones.
Keeping the line of sight clear is also important for seniors who are driving. People in their younger years may be able to get away with dirty headlights, mirrors, and windows, but this may obstruct views for senior citizens. Making sure everything is clean and clear is one step seniors can take to ensure they are safe on the road.
Most cars, especially newer ones, have a feature where seniors can increase the brightness on the dashboard’s display and the entertainment/infotainment consoles. This can improve seniors’ ability to see how fast they are going, the amount of fuel in the tank, any warning lights, and so on.
Of course, it is best for seniors to have cars with automatic transmissions, as manual transmissions require a lot of multi-tasking, which can be hard for older individuals. Automatic transmissions eliminate the need to manually operate a clutch and therefore may increase seniors’ ability to pay attention to the road better. Having both hands on the steering wheel is highly recommended for seniors, as it gives them more control. This is especially useful for seniors who have arm, wrist, or hand issues.
Most people may be unaware that a specialist such as an occupational therapist actually may be able to provide seniors with accommodations to make driving easier, such as a “prescription” for a low-effort steering wheel that makes it easier to turn the wheel or hand controls that can help seniors control the gas and brake pedals with their hands instead of their legs. Many seniors also appreciate swing-out seats that eliminate the need to get out of the car like they used to, or they may ask for extended mirrors for greater visibility. There are also many seat cushions available on the market that can make driving more comfortable for seniors with aching backs or legs.
Seniors should try to avoid driving cars with tinted windows because this can reduce the ability to see. They should also keep in mind that if they have the funds to do so, they may want to consider purchasing a newer vehicle that has other improved features such as hands-free technologies and back up cameras. Of course, this is not always economically possible for everyone, so seeing an automotive expert who can install certain features may be the right decision for some seniors.
Another useful tip is for someone else to be in the car while a senior is driving. That way, there is an extra set of eyes if the senior is having trouble turning their neck to look behind them or hearing things such as sirens and honking horns. Passengers can also identify any circumstances in which seniors seem overly nervous or uncomfortable, as the seniors themselves may not even notice them.
Seniors who are concerned about their driving can turn to services such as car-fit.org, which has driving experts who can do an assessment to tell them specific modifications and limitations they have. If a senior needs some help or a refresher regarding driving, consulting a certified driver rehabilitation specialist may be warranted.
Oftentimes, having an expert figure out what type of modifications may need to be made can eliminate the need to stop driving as well as make seniors feel more comfortable behind the wheel. They may reveal issues the senior is having even if they are unaware of them. Being more comfortable while driving can improve confidence, driving skills, and safety.
Be Aware of Traffic Changes
Before going out, it can be helpful for seniors to know of any traffic pattern changes. This can include construction or new roads and signs, so even routes that a senior has been driving for many years could change. Being prepared and knowing what to expect on a route can reduce the chances of an accident and make seniors feel more comfortable driving.
Practice Defensive Driving Techniques
Drivers of all ages should be able to practice defensive driving techniques, but it is typically more difficult for seniors to do so. While technology has certainly made our lives easier in many ways, it has also resulted in more distracted driving. Seniors should pay attention to the road, especially when approaching intersections and stop lights, and should always avoid looking at a phone or GPS during their drive.
Another critical step seniors should take when driving is making sure there is ample room between them and the car in front of them. This is especially crucial for seniors who have issues with their legs, as they may brake slower than they used to. Therefore, seniors should always allow for plenty of braking distance in front of them. Keeping up with the flow of the traffic at any given time is also important, as going too fast or too slow can cause an unwanted accident.
Know the Local Licensing Laws
Renewing a driver’s license is normally not a fun task, but it is important for seniors to know the local laws and regulations. Most states have many different rules for seniors compared to people under the age of 65, so it is important to get licenses renewed properly. Most states require seniors pass a vision test before they can get their licenses renewed, while others have different regulations on renewing licenses online versus in person. Knowing and following the rules can be extremely helpful in the future. Note that the local Department of Motor Vehicles may also recommend useful organizations such as the ones outlined above.
Understanding and Accepting Limitations
Many seniors refuse to admit and accept that their driving ability has declined over time, but understanding and accepting this can allow them to make modifications to their driving habits and increase safety while keeping some sense of independence. Of course, once the limitations become too great, seniors should stop driving and find other forms of transportation (more on that below). However, many seniors simply make adjustments to their driving patterns that allow them to keep their freedom and independence.
One way seniors can modify their driving behaviors is to never drive at night. Headlights - even if they are clean - are not sufficient for many people driving in the dark, even some younger people. Running errands and visiting friends and family during the day can eliminate the need to drive at night and therefore keep seniors safer. Of course, avoiding rush hour traffic in the mornings and afternoons can also help reduce anxiety and keep seniors safe. Another obvious safety tip is to avoid driving in any sort of bad weather, which even includes wind as this can affect a vehicle in motion.
Seniors may also opt to take side roads and streets with slower traffic as opposed to fast highways, as they may be afraid or unable to keep up with a quicker pace. Merging onto a fast-moving highway can also be scary, even for younger drivers. Traffic congestion can also raise anxiety, which can lead to poor driving decisions and possible accidents. Therefore, avoiding the highway altogether might be a beneficial decision. Recognize that there is always another route you can go, even if it might take much longer than the highway would.
Being prepared beforehand and knowing where they are going can also make seniors feel more confident and safer while driving. Not having to look at a map, GPS, or cell phone while driving can greatly reduce stress and anxiety; therefore, planning out the best route before getting in the car is a great tip for seniors.
Talking to A Loved One About Their Driving
One of the hardest things a caretaker or loved one may have to do is have a conversation with a senior about their driving. Many seniors have trouble accepting they should not be on the road anymore, and most are resistant to stop driving. It is important to realize that most seniors have been driving for several decades, and suddenly having their keys taken away is a major and very difficult change.
Before having a conversation with seniors about their driving, caretakers and loved ones may want to plan it. There are dozens of books on the topic that can provide guidance on how to approach the topic without creating a lot of conflict. Preparing for more than one conversation is a good idea, as it may take multiple talks to express all opinions and concerns and then come up with an agreement.
After planning, the first thing to do is be mindful of how the senior feels and how difficult the change will be for them. If possible, having them gradually reduce their driving can make the transition smoother and less emotionally taxing. It may be useful to suggest reducing driving slowly, such as taking some of the steps outlined above (don’t drive at night, don’t go on the freeway, etc.). This eliminates the need to abruptly stop driving and immediately lose their “freedom.”
Along the same lines, remaining understanding but also expressing real concerns is important. While caretakers must understand the senior’s point of view, the senior also needs to understand why the caretakers are concerned and feel the way they do. The senior should be given examples of dangerous habits they have started to have, which may include any of the red flags outlined above. It is important to never simply state, “You’re a terrible driver now,” as this creates more conflict and reduces the chances of a resolution.
If possible, caretakers and loved ones may want to join forces to express concerns to a senior whose driving abilities are declining. Having more than one person talk to a senior can make them less likely to be resistant, as multiple people telling him or her the same thing may help him or her realize they are right and there is a problem. Seniors may be completely resistant if their kids are the ones talking to them about their driving, so having friends or other people have conversations may be useful, too.
Another obvious step for caretakers and loved ones to take is assisting seniors with finding alternate forms of transportation. Offering rides is an obvious one, but also offering to contact the local transit authority or other organizations is a great idea. Many seniors are not good with the internet and do not know how to do the research, so offering to do it for them is a solid way to lessen the tension.
Some seniors are completely resistant to listening to caretakers or loved ones, so AAA offers a self-assessment tool that may make them realize their less-than-preferred driving habits. If they are honest on this 15-question assessment, they may be more open to hanging up their keys.
In severe cases of refusal, a caretaker or loved one can file a report with the DMV indicating that he or she feels a senior is incapable of being on the road but refuses to stop driving. The DMV may take action and can end up revoking or restricting the senior’s license if necessary. Depending on the state, seniors may or may not be notified of who exactly put in the complaint.
Alternatives to Driving
When seniors decide it’s time to stop driving themselves, they’ll need alternative ways to get around. Of course, family members and friends are always great options, and most are always willing to help. Not only does this get seniors where they need to be, but this also eliminates the worries of family members and friends. However, this may not always be possible, but thankfully there are other alternatives to driving.
Depending on a senior’s life circumstances and finances, he or she may want to move into some sort of community that wouldn’t require him or her to drive. Many retirement and senior communities have a van or some sort of vehicle that can take residents to and from stores and doctors’ appointments, eliminating the need for them to drive. These also normally have a clubhouse or some sort of place to gather and socialize with other residents, meaning the seniors don’t have to leave their complex to meet up with their friends.
Many people have the impression that rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are only for younger people, but this is far from the truth. Seniors can use these services, too, and they are not very costly in many areas. Once the apps are installed on seniors’ phones and a form of payment is added, it only takes a couple of taps to request a ride. While ridesharing services have become increasingly popular and major go-tos when needing a ride somewhere, taxis are still also in business and can get seniors where they need to go.
Seniors and their caregivers may also want to look into local organizations that may provide rides to seniors. A lot of these organizations are non-profits and utilize volunteers and staff to transport seniors to and from certain places. Depending on the area a senior lives in, there may be a free one. Others rely on community donations or charge some sort of recurring fee. Similarly, paratransit services can pick seniors up and drop them off wherever they need to be.
Of course, public transportation is also senior-friendly in many areas. A senior’s local area may have buses or rail transit that are accessible and convenient for them. While seniors living in large metro areas may already know about these services, those in other regions may want to check with the local transit authorities to seek out their options.
Ultimately, it can be extremely difficult for a senior to reduce or stop driving. Not being able to drive takes away the ability to do anything seniors want when they want, and it can cause a lot of tension between caretakers, loved ones, and seniors. However, for the safety of a senior and other drivers, it is important to recognize the signs that one’s ability to drive is declining and/or if there are health conditions that make it unsafe for him or her to drive.
Thomas AndersonGeriatric Care Manager
Thomas Anderson has over 15 years of experience providing care and support to elderly individuals. He specializes in helping seniors manage their medical needs and navigate the healthcare system. Thomas keenly understands how to help aging adults stay as independent as possible while ensuring they have access to the best available resources.