COMMON AREAS OF CONCERN ABOUT OLDER DRIVERS
The most common areas of concern about an older driver’s driving behavior are:
• Slow reaction time.
• Driving too slowly.
• Not paying attention to other drivers and pedestrians.
• Recent crashes and/or forgetting where they are going.
Traffic Safety experts agree that older drivers and their caregivers should not wait
until a crash occurs before they begin thinking about driving safety.
These are some typical concerns expressed by family members:
• “My father drives too slowly and sometimes crosses the yellow line. Then he
denies he did anything wrong.”
• “My mother has had several car accidents and I’m very concerned.”
• “He is 90. Shouldn’t he stop driving?”
• “She went to her hairdresser and got lost on the way home.”
• “My spouse has Alzheimer’s. His license is revoked, but he continues to
drive. He steals the keys from my purse.”
• “She went to her regular hairdresser and got lost for an hour on the way
• “I will not let my children ride with him anymore.”
• “Mom was only driving locally. Then she got lost in town. Was lost for
several hours. Even ran out of gas. Somehow she called my sister. We sat on
it (the problem) for 3 months. Then we went for help.”
• “She angrily protested, got angry, cried. She brings it up with relatives and
friends. Has gone to see several doctors to try to get them to permit her to
• We usually think about older drivers from one perspective: getting them off
the road. But we are headed for a terrific problem with the lack of public
transportation, ever-sprawling suburbia and a coming wave of aging baby
boomers. What we really need to be looking at is how to keep them driving
• “I was married for over fifty years when my spouse died. I eventually got
over the loss. But I have not gotten over the loss of my driver’s license.”
Do any of these statements sound familiar to you?
BASIC FACTS AND STATISTICS ABOUT OLDER DRIVERS
• By 2020, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration estimates
that there will be 40 million licensed drivers age 65 and older.
• In New York State alone there are 750,000 licensed drivers over the age of
• Not only will there be more drivers, but these drivers will travel more miles
each year than previous generations and will continue driving at older ages.
• In general, older adults are among the safest drivers on the road.
• Older drivers are more likely to wear seatbelts and have the lowest incidence
of alcohol-related crashes. However, they tend to drive in places where more
crashes are likely such as surface streets as opposed to highways.
• For every mile driven, the crash rates start to rise for drivers age 75 and
increase sharply after age 80.
• According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration,
nearly 200,000 older drivers and older adult passengers are injured as a
result of crashes each year.
• Older drivers, especially those over 75, are more likely than younger drivers
to suffer injuries or die as a result of vehicle crashes because of their
increased susceptibility to injury, particularly chest injuries, and medical
• Most of the driving injuries and fatalities among older adults occur in the
daytime, on weekdays, and involve other vehicles.
• The most common errors made by older drivers involve failure to yield right
of way or to see oncoming traffic.
• Left turns at intersections are the most frequent place where crashes
involving older drivers occur.
These facts and statistics show why it is important to be prepared to talk to older
drivers about their continued safety and most importantly plan for a time when
they can no longer drive.
The caregiver or anyone attempting to help an older driver needs to begin the
conversation early, while the older driver still has full capacity to comprehend and
make good choices.
Remember that any decisions made about driving should be based on the driver’s
capability, not their age.
UNDERSTANDING THE SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPORTANCE OF
DRIVING FOR OLDER ADULTS
One needs to look no further than the nearest parking lot to understand the
importance of driving in our society. Driving allows us to run errands, shop, go to
doctors, visit friends, work, volunteer, and attend religious activities. Driving is
part of our self-identity, who we are and what we can do. Driving helps us
maintain connections with people, places, communities, and activities. Driving
allows us to feel in control. Driving includes the pride of owning a car and the
convenience of going where we want to when we want to. In addition, one’s sense
of self identity and independence are closely tied to the freedom to drive.
It is essential to understand the significance and importance that driving has for an
older adult and be sensitive to their personal needs.
THE AGING PROCESS AND HOW IT AFFECTS DRIVING
Driving is something we learned many years ago and for most of us it seems like a
simple task. However, driving is actually a complicated task that involves multiple
skills. Safe driving requires good vision. Safe driving requires good cognition
which includes the ability to recognize, remember, decide, and react. Safe driving
requires good physical ability such strength, flexibility, and coordination to control
the vehicle. Consider for yourself the complexity of driving and the various
physiological conditions that make it more demanding for an older adult. There are
natural declines as we age in vision, hearing, strength, flexibility, and reflexes that
can affect driving. Sometimes there are cognitive changes, too. Some medications
interfere with the ability to drive safely by making the person less alert. Chronic
conditions such as arthritis can affect a person’s ability to drive.
The majority of older drivers are good drivers but sometimes a driver’s health or
physical limitations can affect the safe operation of a motor vehicle. The aging
process can affect a driver’s ability to sense, decide and act which are all critical
skills needed for safe driving. Knowing the early signs of driving difficulty, both
physical and cognitive, allows older drivers and their loved ones to discuss the
situation and take appropriate action to maintain their safety and the safety of
others in their community.
WARNING SIGNS AND DANGEROUS COPING MECHANISMS
Judgments about dangerous driving should not be based on a single warning sign.
Anyone observing an older driver’s driving habits should consider a “pattern” of
warning signs or the “degree” of danger that a particular warning sign poses.
The following are just a few of the warning signs that signal that an older driver
may be in trouble:
Out of Car Warning Signs:
• Frequent forgetfulness.
• Unusual agitation or anger
• Confusion and or disorientation.
• Loss of coordination, trouble walking, extremely stiff joints, recent falls.
• Shortness of breath or unusual fatigue.
• Difficulty following or giving verbal directions.
In-Car Warning Signs:
• Incorrect signaling.
• Trouble navigating and controlling turns.
• Moving into a wrong lane.
• Confusion at exits.
• Parking inappropriately and hitting curbs.
• Increased agitation or irritation when driving.
• Scrapes or dents on the car, garage, house, or mailbox.
• Ticketed moving violations or warnings.
• A traffic accident.
In-Car Red Flags Indicating that Driving Should be Addressed Immediately:
• Failure to notice traffic lights or signs.
• Driving at inappropriate speeds (too fast, too slow).
• Delayed responses to unexpected situations.
• Getting lost in familiar places.
• Multiple traffic accidents or near misses.
• Confusing the brake and gas pedals.
• Stopping in traffic for no apparent reason.
• You are afraid to ride with them
A decision about driving involves looking at multiple behaviors and the degree of
danger that a particular warning sign poses to the community.
If the older driver demonstrates any warning signs, it is time to think about
intervening, not just for the driver’s safety, but also for the safety of others.
In speaking with an older driver you can ask if they occasionally:
• Feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed about driving.
• Feel that cars come out of nowhere.
• Find that other drivers are frequently honking at them.
• Feel sleepy or less alert when they drive.
• Sometimes think that traffic is unexpectedly speeding by them.
Often an older driver will demonstrate dangerous coping mechanisms when
attempting to compensate for their deficiencies.
Two dangerous coping mechanisms related to unsafe driving are:
Driving Too Slowly
• Driving too slowly may indicate that a person is compensating for their
reduced reaction time or diminished vision.
• Reacting too slowly at intersections and when making left hand turns can
indicate that the person’s confidence as well as their cognitive ability to
judge the speed of on-coming vehicles may be diminished.
Using a “Co-Pilot”
• Some older couples rely on “copiloting” which occurs when one person
steers and the other person instructs the “driver” what to do when the driver
is unable to respond in an unexpected situation.
• This is not a case of “two heads are better than one.”
Anyone who cannot drive without the assistance of copilot simply should not be
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