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Cornelius News

Safer driving: How to decide whether to give up the keys


Seniors often view their ability to keep driving like a badge of honor. That’s because driving can be one of the last bastions of personal independence. Truth is, many seniors can continue to drive safely. Furthermore, medical procedures to improve vision and various tools and resources can help enhance older adults’ driving skills. It largely all comes down to staying abreast of the changes of aging and being willing and able to adapt.

ahern_seniorscolumnElin Schold Davis is project coordinator for the American Occupational Therapy Association’s  Older Driver Initiative. “It does have to do with changes in vision, physical skills such as the ability to reach, turn and work the pedals, and cognitive capabilities such as recalling the rules of the road, making quick decisions and navigating,” she says.

Another one of the major changes in driving is to no longer drive at night.  According to Home Instead Senior Care research, 41 percent of seniors say they are less comfortable with this than they used to be.

Many older adults sense when their driving skills are changing and will self-regulate their driving habits.  Equipping a vehicle with special equipment, such as adaptive mirrors, also may provide opportunities to drive longer and more safely. That kind of flexibility could keep an older adult on the road safer and longer. Recognizing the potential signs that could indicate a change in driving skill and fitness is the first step—for seniors and their families. Some of the potential warning signs and changing abilities may include:

  • Drives below the speed limit or even stops at green lights
  • Unexplained dents or accidents
  • Positions the driver’s seat unusually close to the steering wheel
  • Shows evidence of untreated cataracts
  • Experiences decreased flexibility and mobility, and/or pain
  • Exhibits the inability to see or understand traffic signs or hear car horns
  • Prescribed a new medication or change in dosage (this effect may be short-term but essential to recognize)
  • Becomes easily distracted or angered
  • Has trouble navigating turns
  • Becomes confused at exits
  • Hits curbs
  • Prompts other drivers to honk
  • Mixes up gas and brake pedals
  • Gets lost

According to AAA, seniors are more likely to be injured or killed in traffic crashes due to age-related vulnerabilities, such as more fragile bones. Medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses also make it more difficult for older drivers to recover from any injuries. With the exception of teen drivers, seniors have the highest crash death rate per mile driven, even though they drive fewer miles than younger people.

You may not experience all of the changes we have been talking about, but perhaps you are beginning to see some of the signs that things are changing. If you are worried about your driving, you can take additional steps.

Avoid driving in bad weather like rain or snow. Wait until the weather is better or take other kinds of transportation like a taxi or bus.

  • Limit your trips to places that are easy to get to and close to home.
  • Take roads that will avoid risky spots like ramps and left turns.
  • Use highways when there is less traffic.
  • Avoid driving if you are stressed or tired.

Seeing one of these signs might not mean a senior’s driving days are over. Get to the root of the problem. Consider a comprehensive driving evaluation by an occupational therapist or explore potential assistive technologies to help keep you or your older loved one on the road longer.

Joanne, who lives in Magnolia Estates, is the Director of the North Mecklenburg Senior Center, affiliated  with the Mecklenburg County Park and Rec Department.  She can be reached at 980-314-1127.