Aging parents and relatives may insist they’re still fit to drive – “I can handle it, I do it all the time,” they say – because they like their independence and mobility. Older people can certainly still rock out in a convertible with the top down, and some people can drive safely for a really, really long time, but everyone has to give it up someday.
Statistics show that the risk of getting injured or fatally wounded in a car accident increases with age. Just how big of a problem is this? Data from a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report shows that in 2012, people ages 65 and older made up 14 percent of the nation’s resident population. In the same year, that age group accounted for 17 percent of all fatalities and 9 percent of all people injured due to traffic accidents in the United States. Driver involvement in fatal crashes among the 65+ group was the third highest in Texas. These percentages amount to about 15 deaths and 586 injuries among older drivers every day.
Certainly, there are extra protective measures that older drivers can take to avoid risky road situations and prevent traffic accidents, such as wearing a seat belt or driving only under certain conditions. For example, some may stop driving at night or during heavy traffic hours, avoid freeways, or plan routes that avoid left turns. Still, there may be a point when the only safety measure left to take is their keys, even if they don’t want to give them up. Below are some ways to tell when the time has come.
Evaluate Driving Ability
One effective strategy that can help determine driving ability is simply going for a ride-along. Make plans to go to lunch or the mall together and ask your parent to drive. Buckle up, sit back but don’t relax. Instead, be attentive.
From vision to cognition, actively observe and evaluate any sense and skill required for driving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that age-related declines in physical and mental conditions may affect some older people’s ability to drive. Here are a few ways to gauge driver competency:
- Point out and ask questions about things you see on the road to assess how far and how well the person can see.
- Ask to go back to a previous location to test memory.
- Navigate through obstacles like construction sites and four-way stops to assess reasoning and timing.
- Casually ask if any medications were taken prior to the drive and watch the driver for possible side effects.
- Change loudness of your talking voice and/or the stereo to various levels every now and then to evaluate hearing ability.
- Pay attention to things the driver should know to do, such as fully stopping at a stop sign, checking the blind spot before switching lanes, following speed limits and driving on the right side of the road.
- Check for difficulties performing various driving tasks like parking, backing up or turning around.
Check for Conditions and Medications
Medications can have side effects and interactions that may affect a person’s ability to drive. Some pain medications, for instance, may cause drowsiness and affect attention span. It’s a good idea to talk to elderly drivers and, if possible, their doctors about prescription and over-the-counter medicines they may be taking. A physician can refer patients with medical issues that may affect their driving ability to a rehabilitation specialist who may review their medical histories and conduct tests (such as for memory and reaction times) to evaluate and help these patients.
Lastly, if an elderly parent or relative shows signs of memory loss or other symptoms that may make driving unsafe, schedule an appointment with his or her doctor to check for possible undiagnosed conditions.
There’s no specific age limit for driving. The time to take the keys away from older drivers is simply when they can’t do the task anymore – whether physically, mentally or both – without putting themselves and others at risk.
Dr. Jessica Stull is an Internal Medicine physician who sees current and new patients at Kelsey-Seybold’s Tanglewood Clinic. Her clinical interests include preventive medicine and chronic disease management, diabetes mellitus, obesity and heart disease.