In our society, we sometimes forget that driving is a privilege, not a right. Safe driving depends upon the ability to see, think and move. While many older drivers continue to drive safely, the ability to drive safely can be severely impacted by dementia or other medical conditions that cause confusion, memory loss or cognitive impairment, vision and hearing loss, alcohol use, and medication side effects. It’s a difficult issue to face, but ignoring it won’t make the problem go away.

I hear lots of older drivers diminish the risks involved, saying that they only drive to places they know, close by. But statistics show that the most serious accidents occur when one of the drivers is making a left turn. And the consequences can be severe. Remember the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market accident, when an 86-year-old man killed ten people and wounded 63, when he mistook the gas pedal for the brake? Whenever I hear a story on the news about a driver going through a building, I wonder how that driver was impaired, and if dementia was a factor.

The first step is self-assessment. Here are some signs of unsafe driving:

  • Difficulty following instructions and directions
  • Drifting into other lanes of traffic
  • Stopping or slowing in traffic for no reason
  • Confusing the brake and accelerator
  • Changing too abruptly, or not noticing obstacles ahead
  • Failure to signal
  • An increasing number of driving citations or warnings
  • An increasing number of accidents or near misses
  • Unexplained dents and scratches
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Failure to obey traffic laws, road signs or signals
  • Difficulty seeing pedestrians, objects or other vehicles
  • Becoming flustered in traffic or by more aggressive drivers
  • Failure to yield the right-of-way
  • Driving too slowly
  • Straddling lanes
  • Getting drowsy or falling asleep while driving
  • Failure to hear and respond to emergency vehicles

Retiring from Driving – Making a Plan

Retiring from driving is not always an easy decision to make. Older adults may be very reluctant to stop driving even if they have demonstrated that they are not safe to drive. If you are a caregiver, family member or friend, you may need to give some encouragement.

Acknowledge how difficult it may be for the person. They may have relied on driving as their main means of transport for much of their life, and may feel unhappy about losing some of their independence or self-esteem. Retiring from driving will seem especially hard if physical or cognitive problems make it difficult to use public transportation, and other options aren’t available.

Encourage the person who is retiring from driving to explore options:

  • Public transportation or Access
  • Taxis
  • Assisted living community van transportation
  • Online shopping
  • Family members or volunteer drivers

Point out some of the benefits to not driving, such as:

  • The person will no longer have to look for parking spaces or pay for parking
  • They will no longer have to pay for gas and car insurance, freeing up a significant amount of money each month
  • They won’t have the stress of driving in traffic
  • Public transport or ride sharing can be sociable
  • They may get more exercise if they decide to walk instead