Aside from taking care of your health, you can take an active role in helping yourself or another senior to drive more safely.
Find the right car and any aids you need for driving. Choose a vehicle with automatic transmission, power steering, and power brakes. Keep your car in good working condition by visiting your mechanic for scheduled maintenance. Be sure that windows and headlights are always clean. You can also see an occupational therapist for special driving aids that can help with physical problems.
Take it slow and give yourself plenty of room. If cars are passing you on both the right and left lanes, you may be driving more slowly than you used to. Move into the slow lane so others can pass you safely. Also, to avoid problems if the vehicle in front of you stops suddenly, stay back about two car lengths. Be sure to yield the right of way in intersections. Older drivers also have a large number of accidents at intersections when making left turns. It is best to avoid them altogether by making successive right turns and keeping going around the block or blocks to get to your destination.
Avoid distractions. In general, many accidents happen because of distractions like talking on the phone, tuning the radio, eating or drinking, reaching for something, turning your head to talk with a passenger or looking around at the scenery instead of the road. Even a few seconds of taking your mind off driving can be precarious.
Avoid uncomfortable driving situations. Many older drivers voluntarily begin to make changes in their driving practices. For instance, you may decide to drive only during daylight hours if you have trouble seeing well in reduced light. If fast-moving traffic bothers you, consider staying off freeways, highways, and find street routes instead. You may also decide to avoid driving in bad weather (rain, thunderstorms, snow, hail, ice). If you are going to a place that is unfamiliar to you, it is a good idea to plan your route before you leave so that you feel more confident and avoid getting lost. Online services such as MapQuest, Google Maps, and Yahoo Maps can be very helpful.
HELPING YOURSELF DRIVE SAFELY
Try the following…
Get eyes checked every year and make sure that corrective lenses are current. Keep the windshield, mirrors, and headlights clean, and turn brightness up on the instrument panel on your dashboard.
Have hearing checked annually. If hearing aids are prescribed, make sure they are worn while driving
Limited mobility and increased reaction time
An occupational therapist or a certified driving rehabilitation specialist can prescribe equipment to make it easier to steer the car and to operate the foot pedals.
Talk with a doctor about the effects of medications you are taking on driving ability.
Sleeping well is essential to driving well. If there are problems, try to improve night-time sleep conditions and talk with a doctor about the effect of any sleep medications on driving.
Dementia and brain impairment
If there are any signs of dementia or brain impairment, limit driving and consult a doctor.
WARNING SIGNS OF UNSAFE DRIVING
Driving is a complex function and problems can come up in a number of ways. If you begin to find driving more difficult than before, be alert for changes that make driving unsafe. If you notice any of the warning signs listed below, it is time to reassess your risks. If you are in a position to observe these in another driver, see if any of them are reflected in your own driving. It’s hard to do but extremely important. Many small warning signs of unsafe driving can add up to the decision to quit driving.
Unsafe driving warning signs
Problems on the road. Abrupt lane changes, braking, or acceleration. Failing to use the turn signal, or keeping the signal on without changing lanes. Drifting into other lanes. Driving on the wrong side of the road or in the shoulder.
Trouble with reflexes. Trouble reading signs or navigating directions to get somewhere. Range-of-motion issues (looking over the shoulder, moving the hands or feet). Trouble moving from the gas to the brake pedal, or confusing the two pedals. Slow reaction to changes in the driving environment.
Increased anxiety and anger in the car. Feeling more nervous or fearful while driving or feeling exhausted after driving. Frustration or anger at other drivers but oblivious to the frustration of other drivers, not understanding why they are honking. Reluctance from friends or relatives to be in the car with the senior driving
Trouble with memory or handling change. Getting lost more often. Missing highway exits or backing up after missing an exit. Trouble paying attention to signals, road signs, pavement markings, or pedestrians.
Close calls and increased citations. More frequent “close calls” (i.e., almost crashing), or dents and scrapes on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, and curbs. Increased traffic tickets or “warnings” by traffic or law enforcement officers.
TALKING TO AN OLDER DRIVER WHO SHOULD STOP DRIVING
If you find yourself in the position of talking to an older family member or friend about their driving, approach the issue with sensitivity. A driver’s license signifies more than the ability to drive a car; it is a symbol of freedom and self-sufficiency. Understandably, driving is not a privilege that anyone wants to relinquish willingly.
Some older drivers may be aware of their faltering ability, but still be reluctant to give up driving completely. Another person’s concerns may force the senior driver to act. They may even feel relieved to have someone else help make the decision to stop driving. Some seniors may forget that they aren’t supposed to drive. If that is the case, it is even more important to remove the car or the keys to make it impossible to drive.
When a driver refuses to give up the keys
Sometimes an older driver has to be stopped from driving over their objections. It might feel very difficult for you to make this call, especially if the senior is a parent or other close figure used to having their independence. However, their safety and the safety of others must come first. An unsafe driver can seriously injure or kill themselves or others.
If appropriate evaluations and recommendations have been made and no amount of rational discussion has convinced the senior to hand over the car keys, then you may make an anonymous report to the Department of Motor Vehicles or recruit the family physician to write a prescription to stop driving. In some cases, there is a need to take further actions such as taking away the car keys, selling or disabling the car, and enlisting the local police to explain the importance of safe driving and the legal implications of unsafe driving.
Monika White, Ph.D. Doug Russell, LCSW, Joanna Saisan and Gina Kemp M.A. contributed to this article. Last modified: June 09.