Family Living Focus: Older Drivers – When driving skills change

Age alone does not determine driving ability. In fact, older drivers have a wide range of driving skills. Your health status matters more when it comes to driving ability. Various health conditions and declines in visual, thinking, and physical abilities that occur with aging can often affect driving ability.

Many people recognize when it’s time to change their driving habits or stop driving. Others are more reluctant. Checking your driving skills and talking to family members, friends, or your doctor about your concerns can help clarify what changes, if any, are needed.

Have Your Skills Changed?

How do you know if your driving skills have declined? If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you should check your skills. You may need to change your driving habits.

Has a friend or family member expressed concern about your driving?

Has your doctor advised you to limit driving for health reasons?

Have you been pulled over by a police officer and warned about poor driving behavior?

Have you been stopped by the police or had near misses or accidents in the last 3 years?

Do you sometimes get lost on familiar routes?

Do your thoughts wander when you drive? Do you become confused or angry?

Do other drivers honk at you frequently?

Do cars or people walking seem to appear out of nowhere?

Do you have trouble moving your foot between the gas and brake pedals, or do you confuse the two?

It’s important to be aware of your limitations and how they may affect your driving. If you’re not sure you have a driving problem, ask a family member, friend, or doctor for advice. The most important thing is to be safe on the road.

Tests to Assess

Your Skills

Different kinds of tests are used to assess driving skills. You can answer questions about your driving on the computer or on paper. You can take online tests that assess the physical and mental skills used while driving, such as leg strength, neck flexibility, vision, and memory.

Whichever type of test you take, pay attention to the score. (Some tests have many scores, one for each type of driving skill.) It will tell you what your driving strengths and weaknesses are and what skills you should work on. The tests also offer tips for making driving safer.

Road Tests

Another kind of driving test is a road test, in which someone rides with you while you drive. The person conducting the road test will look for signs of dangerous driving. Did you buckle your seatbelt? Did you have trouble with the gas or brake pedal? The evaluator will also see how you handle traffic on busy streets, lane changes, merging, turning, stopping, and other traffic situations.

You might ask a family member or friend to be your passenger and tell you when you do something risky or wrong. Or you can hire a driver rehabilitation specialist, an occupational therapist, or other professional who is specially trained to evaluate people’s driving and help them make changes to stay safe.

Working with a Specialist

A driver rehabilitation specialist typically performs a two-part evaluation. The first part, in an office, looks at the physical, visual, and thinking abilities needed for safe driving, such as muscle strength and reaction time. The second part is a road test to identify potential driving problems. Based on the results, the specialist makes recommendations to improve a person’s ability to drive safely. Training or special equipment may be suggested. To find a driver rehabilitation specialist, consult a local hospital or medical clinic (ask for the occupational therapy department).

Listening to Others

Family members and friends may have expressed concerns about your driving. Listen to them. They mean well and want you to be safe. Having the freedom to drive when and where you want is very important. But the bottom line is “safety first.”

You might feel angry, hurt, or defensive when someone criticizes your driving. These feelings are common and understandable. You might worry about having to depend on others to get around or becoming housebound. Perhaps you’re not familiar with other ways to go places.

Making a Transportation Plan

Talk with someone you trust and come up with a transportation plan. The plan might involve a combination of driving limits you agree to such as driving only during the day or avoiding high-speed roads and other types of transportation. The plan should keep you connected to people, places, and activities that are important to you.

The plan will likely mean changes in your habits. For example, to avoid heavy traffic, you may have to change the time of day you go shopping, or you might shop at new places to avoid busy roads.

Once you have a transportation plan, review it regularly to make sure it still works for you. You may have to make changes if your health or other circumstances change.

Rules of the Road

Here are some basic rules that all drivers should follow.

Always wear a seatbelt. If your seatbelt is uncomfortable, adjust the shoulder mount.

Stay off the cell phone.

Avoid distractions such as eating. If the radio or conversations with other people are distracting, limit those, too.

Make sure there is enough space in front of and behind your car.

Taking Extra Precautions

If you are worried about your driving, you can take additional steps.

Avoid driving in bad weather like rain or snow. Wait until the weather is better or take other kinds of transportation like a taxi or bus.

Limit your trips to places that are easy to get to and close to home.

Take roads that will avoid risky spots like ramps and left turns.

Use highways when there is less traffic.

Avoid driving if you are stressed or tired.

When to Stop Driving

Sometimes, it’s best to stop driving altogether. How do you know when it’s time to give up the keys? It may be obvious, like when someone has a serious disease with symptoms that make driving unsafe. In other cases, it is not clear, as with a person with very mild dementia whose driving skills decline very slowly. Whatever the reason, it’s time to stop when your driving endangers you or other people on the road.

Talk to your family members, friends, or doctor to see if they have concerns about your driving. A driver rehabilitation specialist can also recommend whether or not you should stop driving after evaluating your health and abilities.

If a Person Has Alzheimer’s

For someone with Alzheimer’s disease, the issue is not whether the person will have to stop driving, but when. Early signs that Alzheimer’s is affecting a person’s driving ability include drifting out of lane; becoming confused when entering or exiting a highway; getting lost in familiar places; stopping inappropriately, such as at green lights or in the middle of an intersection when not turning.

Accidents Can Lead to Restrictions

A traffic accident can put a sudden stop to driving. A police officer or other person can report unsafe drivers to the state department of motor vehicles. These drivers must then submit medical information and may be required to take a driving test. Their licenses can be restricted or taken away depending on the results.

Even if you have planned for the possibility of no longer driving, it is hard to stop. There are other ways to get around. You can still be independent and continue to enjoy your favorite activities, run errands, and visit friends.

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Information adapted from article by National Institute of Senior Health Aging Page.

If you would like more information on “Older Drivers – When Driving Skills Change” contact Gail Gilman, Family Life Consultant, M.Ed., C.F.C.S. and Professor Emeritus – University of Minnesota at waldn001@umn.edu. Be sure to watch for more Family Living Focus™ information in next week’s paper.

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