How to Know When It's Time for Your Parent to Stop Driving

Top Risk Factors and Warning Signs
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If your aging parent or other family member is like most people, the decision to stop driving is likely to be a wrenching one. It raises daunting practical problems (How will I get to the doctor? What about my weekly outings for dinner and a movie?). It also represents another loss at a time of life already buffeted by major losses -- of independence, health, and lifelong friends and loved ones.

For practical and emotional reasons, then, giving up driving is a transition that everyone involved wishes to put off as long as possible. It's no wonder that many adult children and spouses say that taking away the car keys was among the hardest things they ever had to do.

Still, if you have concerns about a family member's driving ability, it's vital not to ignore them. Many seniors are able to drive safely well into their 80s and even early 90s, but it's also common for elderly people to have vision and hearing problems, slowed reaction times, and illnesses that can jeopardize their ability to drive safely.

According to a report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the rate of accidents per mile of driving increases steadily for drivers 65 and older. More worrisome still, drivers 80 and older have higher crash death rates than any other group except teenage drivers, according to the Centers for Disease Control. (One reason: Older drivers are physically more frail than other drivers and thus more likely to die in a crash.)

But it's important not to urge a family member to stop driving until you're convinced he's dangerous behind the wheel. Experts agree that age alone is not a predictor for poor driving skills. And older drivers actually cause fewer motorist and pedestrian deaths than drivers of any other age group, according to John Eberhard, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Older Driver Research Program. Eberhard also gives seniors high marks for driving safety: They're more likely than other drivers to wear seat belts, for example, and less likely to drink and drive. In addition, seniors drive much less than younger drivers, so the total number of accidents is lower.

How can you tell when the time has come for someone to stop driving? We've developed guidelines that will help you avoid being an alarmist yet also realize when the time has arrived that driving is no longer a safe activity for the person in your care.

5 Risk Factors for Older Drivers

Having any of the following factors does not mean an older adult should immediately stop driving, but they can elevate risk and warrant monitoring.

1. 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 someone's ability to drive given his health problems, consult with his physicians, if possible, and raise the issue of driving safety. (Keep in mind that his physician can't talk to you without his permission, unless you have power of attorney.)

2. Vision Impairment

Vision is obviously a key component of driving ability. In fact, 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 accurately reading the speedometer to detecting pedestrians on the side of the road, good driving requires good eyesight. But deterioration in vision is an inevitable effect of aging; in people 75 and older, vision impairment rates increase significantly, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As the eye ages, far less light reaches the retina, for one thing. Older eyes are also more susceptible to cataracts, glaucoma, and other problems that impair vision. Encourage your family member to have regular eye exams, and check in with his eye doctor if you have concerns.

3. Hearing Impairment

Few people age without some deterioration in their hearing. In fact, one-third of those over 65 have hearing problems. Hearing loss can happen gradually, without the person realizing it, and undermine the ability to hear horns, screeching tires, sirens, and other sounds that would normally put someone on high alert. Make sure the person in your care has regular hearing tests.

4. 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. If your family member takes a lot of pills each day, as many elderly people do, educate yourself about the drugs and their possible side effects. Even herbal remedies and over-the-counter medications can affect driving ability. Talk to your family member's physicians and pharmacist, and be sure to ask about possible drug interactions.

5. 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, elderly folks are likely to be on medication, which can exacerbate the effects of alcohol. Given these risks, and the difficulty of gauging exactly how much alcohol will impair an individual's driving, Elizabeth Dugan's advice is simple: "If you drink, don't drive. Period." If you suspect that your family member is drinking and driving, don't wait to take action.

5 Warning Signs of an Unsafe Elderly Driver

Watch for these signs of a dangerous driver:

1. Auto Insurance Changes or Traffic Tickets

Find out if his auto insurance rates have increased recently or if he's received traffic tickets or warnings.

2. Damage to the Car

Check to see if his car has new dents or nicks.

3. Reluctance to Drive at Night

Pay attention if he's reluctant to drive at night, seems tense or exhausted after driving, or complains of getting lost.

4. Friends' Observations

Discreetly check in with his friends and neighbors and ask if they've noticed any driving problems.

5. Driving Behavior Changes

When you accompany your family member on an errand or an outing, encourage him to take the wheel and look for these signs of driving problems:

  • Does he fasten his seat belt?
  • Does he sit comfortably at the wheel, or does he crane forward or show signs of discomfort?
  • Does he seem tense and preoccupied, or easily distracted?
  • Is he aware of traffic lights, road signs, pedestrians, and the reactions of other motorists?
  • Does he often tailgate or drift toward the oncoming lane or into other lanes?
  • Does he react slowly or with confusion in unexpected situations?

If you drive with him a few times and notice problems, it's time to initiate a discussion about your concerns and whether it might be time for him to stop driving. (See also Checklist: 8 Ways to Assess Someone's Driving.)

Connie Matthiessen

Constance (Connie) Matthiessen, senior editor, has worked as a healthcare and environmental journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting and has written for WebMD, Consumer Health Interactive, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, BabyCenter. See full bio

4 months, said...

Thank you for sharing a wonderful information. You can now download facetime for pc and enjoy nice conversion with your friends and family members. You can use facetime for android or in pc.

about 1 year, said...

I for one think cars are unsafe for use in public b/ c of the independence associated with the advertisement of cars, and the use of music stereos while driving.. I think pedal bike and greyhound bus should be the 2 ways of transportation

almost 2 years, said...

All excellent points, but, still hard for someone to relinquish their keys, it's coming to grips that "things are changing" and no one likes changes. I commend those who come to the decision on their own, stating "Get rid of my car, I don't feel safe anymore." It happens. Makes it so much easier for the care partner as well, lessening our "bad guy guilt." I remember all to well the crisis I had 5 years ago when my brother was diagnosed with ALZ. He accepted the terrible news, it appeared that day quite well, the "No more driving," seemed his biggest concern at that moment. I am certain it was his way of coping, denial safer, still able to realize this was the start of many changes. Prior to his diagnosis during my er visit to him, I was in awe of him giving me directions with no problems, I didn't know these were long term memories for him. When I witnessed him driving for the first time, at his insistence, it was another red flag that something wasn't right. No doubt about it the no more driving, taking the many sets of keys, is right up there with all the other challenges, too many to mention. You ponder what stages are the hardest, but know none are easy. ALZ is a terrible disease for the afflicted and the care partner, it's life changing for everyone. Take each day and moment as it comes, treasure the good, try and bury the bad. God Bless All Caregivers

over 2 years, said...

thank that really helped

almost 3 years, said...

I am the older person, wondering how and when my wife and children will tell me to end my driving. I think I am still a good driver, but that attitude might continue beyond the reality. Then, being stubborn could appear. I want to get the criteria clearly stated, with agreement with those who would feel responsible to apply the criteria to end my driving. It will be easier to take if I've helped set the stage.

about 4 years, said...

I just turned 70 and I still think I can drive safely. However. Is it best to have hearing and eye tests ? I don't want to give up unless I have to.

about 4 years, said...

The article assisted me 100% - thanx

over 4 years, said...

After struggling with my father who has dementia about driving, we finally came up with a simple solution. He had a full ring of old keys from his store. We put his truck key on that. He stuggled fiddling with the key ring and generally would give up not finding the key. After a few tries we then removed the key from the ring entirely (without his knowledge). This worked for us much smoother than denying on a daily basis him the keys to drive.

about 5 years, said...

Nobody is going to "take" my keys away. I am giving them up of my own accord. I can tell I am not as quick, I miss things, I have close calls. I am 88, don't hear well and don't see well. I could kill somebody. I could cry as have driven for over 70 years, but it is time to quit.

over 6 years, said...

All of the information contained in this article was extremely helpful. It fits my 81 year old mother to a T! She is still very healthy and active, but she has cataracts and is hard of hearing in both ears, and she was not a good driver when she didn't have all of this going on! My sister and I have already talked about this issue and we both agree that it is going to be difficult to persuade Mom to give up the keys. In fact, I recently broached the subject to my mother to get a feel for the pending heavier discussion and she almost hung up on me! So I know it's not going to be easy, but it will eventually have to be done.

over 8 years, said...

I took my dads keys last year. I see now that I did the right thing. He is totally blind in his right eye, has dementia, and Parkinsons. When I took his keys he said he came to visit me but couldn't remember where I lived. So, that was my cue that it was time. He still thinks there is nothing wrong with him but he is a danger to himself and to others. BTW, he hit the same tree in the front yard 4 times in 1 week even though that tree had been there for over 30 years.

about 10 years, said...

Thanks for having this info available. My brother asks me if we should take Dad's keys frequently but I don't think we should yet. I see by your suggestions that the things I have been watching are the same as you recommend so I feel better that my decision is the right one at this time.

about 10 years, said...

This is helpful. My brother is 81 years old and has gluacoma. His night driving is really bad and daytime driving isn't much better in bright sun, but he won't give up his keys. This might help with aproaching the problem differently. Thank you.

about 10 years, said...

Thank you. The "Warning Signs . . ." and the tips in "Go Driving with your Parents" were particularly helpful. The information was new to me--things I'd never have thought of!!

about 10 years, said...

After almost having three accidents in 48 hours, I voluntarily stopped driving. I am somewhat mentally impaired but hadn't realized how it was affecting my driving. I'm sure that God was helping me realize this. I did not show the symptoms on your list but each of these accidents would have been all my fault. My Bible Study Group said "Thanx".