Medical Risk Factors for Older Drivers

How health conditions and drugs can affect an older adult's driving

The following factors should not rule out driving, but they can elevate risk and warrant monitoring:

  • Health conditions. Physical and mental impairments that accompany aging, from Parkinson's disease to dementia, can compromise driving agility and judgment. If you have questions about an older adult's ability to drive given his health problems, consult a physician about it. (Keep in mind that a physician can't talk to you without the patient's permission, unless you have power of attorney.)
  • Vision impairment. Vision is obviously a key component of driving ability. According to Elizabeth Dugan, author of The Driving Dilemma, "90 percent of the information needed to drive safely relates to the ability to see clearly." From reading the speedometer to detecting pedestrians, good driving requires good eyesight. But vision inevitably deteriorates with age, especially in people 75 and older. As the eye ages, far less light reaches the retina. Older eyes are also more susceptible to cataracts, glaucoma, and other problems that impair vision. Encourage regular eye exams, and check in with the eye doctor if you have concerns.
  • Hearing impairment. Few people age without some deterioration in their hearing; one-third of those over 65 have hearing problems. Hearing loss can happen gradually and undermine someone's ability to hear horns, screeching tires, and sirens that would normally put him on high alert. Make sure he has regular hearing tests.
  • Prescription drug use and drug interactions. Many drugs can compromise driving ability by causing drowsiness, blurred vision, confusion, tremors, or other side effects. Certain drugs taken in combination can also interact and cause serious problems. Educate yourself about the drugs he takes and possible side effects. If he permits you to, talk to his physicians and pharmacist, and be sure to ask about possible drug interactions.
  • Alcohol abuse. Drinking and driving is always a dangerous combination; add old age to the mix and you have a disaster waiting to happen. As people age, alcohol remains in the system longer and tolerance declines. Also, medication can exacerbate the effects of alcohol. Given these risks, Dugan's advice is simple: "If you drink, don't drive. Period." If you suspect drinking and driving, you should take action immediately.