The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that almost 7,700 people over age 65 were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2017 alone, and more than 257,000 experienced serious injury. Furthermore, drivers over 75 have higher crash death rates than middle-aged drivers.
These crash-related deaths and injuries are not necessarily because older adults are poor drivers, but rather, because older adults are more likely to have health impairments that put them at higher risk in a car crash than younger adults. In fact, AARP reports that as a group, older adults have lower rates of crashes and crashes involving injury per licensed driver than younger drivers.
However, along with leading to increased fragility, aging can cause decreased vision, hearing, reaction time and awareness. As these things change, so too might an older adult’s driving ability.
How aging affects driving
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) reports that the natural effects of aging can create a variety of issues when driving:
• Stiff joints and slower reaction times can make it difficult to turn one’s head for proper visibility, brake safely or react quickly when necessary.
• Aging eyes may not be able to clearly see people, objects, traffic signals, street signs and other cars.
• Loss of hearing may mean that older adults have trouble hearing horns, sirens or noises signaling their own car might be in need of repair.
• Dementia or changes to perception can lead to disorientation and forgetting where familiar landmarks are, including one’s own home.
• Certain medications can cause drowsiness and make a driver feel lightheaded, confused and less alert.
• Some medical conditions more common in older adults, such as glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease or a stroke, can negatively affect driving skills.
But not everyone ages at the same rate. And while your father at 70 might be showing signs it’s time to slow his roll, your mother at 80 could still be good to go.
Signs it’s time to hang up the car keys
So, how do you know it’s time to talk to your parent about alternatives to driving? It can be a difficult conversation, as driving allows seniors more independence, keeps them connected to others, and can be the way they get to health care appointments, the pharmacy, the grocery store or other important stops along their daily route.
“Nobody likes to lose independence,” says Dan McNamara, Senior Resource Center program coordinator at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “The topic of curbing their driving will be hard to address with your loved one, since they probably taught you how to drive.”
According to McNamara, the most telltale sign your parents are having difficulty driving would be damage to their vehicle. “If you see scrapes, scratches, dings or dents on the fenders, then it’s very possible that they are starting to have issues,” he says.
Furthermore, a driver’s decision to avoid certain times of day to drive — such as at dusk, at night or when it’s bright out — as well as avoiding certain roads, including freeways, indicates that they are having difficulties.
The NIA recommends that you ride with your parent to observe their driving skills as well as keep an eye out for the following:
• Multiple vehicle crashes, “near misses” or new dents in the car
• Two or more traffic tickets or warnings within the last two years and increases in car insurance premiums because of driving issues
• Anxiety about driving at night
• Comments from neighbors or friends about driving
• Health issues that might affect driving ability, including problems with vision, hearing and movement
• Complaints about the speed, sudden lane changes or actions of other drivers
• Recommendations from a doctor to modify driving habits or quit driving entirely
How to have “the talk”
If you are concerned about your parent’s driving, McNamara suggests that your parent’s doctor can be involved when it comes to broaching the subject. They can act as the “bad guy” that recommends a supplemental driving performance evaluation at the DMV or that they stop driving altogether.
“If you come from a position of safety and well-being, you can help them to understand that driving can be dangerous — like they once taught you — and you can find a common understanding,” he says.
He also recommends that you try to make the transition easier by going out with them using a rideshare company, such as Uber or Lyft. Help them understand how it works and that it is now a common mode of transportation for people of all ages. If they ride with you a couple of times, they might feel comfortable enough to do it themselves, allowing them to continue to be independent, while also being safer than driving their own car.
“As in all things, if you are concerned, acting sooner is better,” McNamara says. “Remember, they may not only be putting their life in danger, but also the lives of others, which can have a catastrophic effect, both physically and financially.”
Talk to your parent’s doctor if you are concerned about their safety while driving. AARP, AAA and California DMV offer safe driving programs for older adults to help them update their driving skills as well as recognize potential shortcomings. The DMV also offers supplemental driving performance evaluations to determine whether a driver has the ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.
This article features experts from Sharp Grossmont Hospital. For more health stories visit www.sharp.com/news.