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Safety on the Road

Can your parents still drive?

Statistics show that the age of the average driver is increasing, with the number of drivers over 56 years of age continuing to increase annually. Statistics also show that the preferred mode of transportation for this age group is still the motor vehicle, for both short commutes and the occasional vacation trip.

Everyone ages differently, so some people are perfectly capable of continuing to drive in their seventies, eighties, and even beyond. Many elders, however, are at higher risk for road accidents. The elderly are more likely to receive traffic citations for failing to yield, turning improperly, and running red lights and stop signs — signs of decreased driving ability. A person 65 or older who is involved in a car accident is more likely to be seriously hurt, more likely to require hospitalization, and more likely to die than younger people involved in the same crash. In particular, fatal crash rates rise sharply after a driver has reached the age of 70.

Some key risk factors for senior drivers include:

  • Visual decline: Vision declines with age, which means depth perception and judging the speed of oncoming traffic become more difficult. The eyes also lose the ability to process light, which makes night vision worse and causes more sensitivity to bright sunlight and glare.
  • Hearing loss: Approximately one-third of adults over age 65 are hearing-impaired. Because hearing loss happens gradually, a senior may not realize they are missing important cues when driving, such as honking, emergency sirens, or a child's bicycle bell.
  • Limited mobility and increased reaction time: With age, flexibility may decrease as response time increases. A full range of motion is crucial on the road.
  • Medications: Certain medications, as well as a combination of medications and alcohol, can increase driving risk. Be particularly careful about medication side-effects and interactions between medications.
  • Drowsiness: Aging can make sleeping more difficult, resulting in daytime tiredness and an increased tendency to doze off during the day (or while driving). In addition, certain prescription drugs cause drowsiness.
  • Dementia or brain impairment: Mental impairment or dementia makes driving more dangerous and more frustrating. Brain impairment may cause delayed reactions to sudden or confusing situations on the road.

In addition, numerous environmental factors that affect people of all ages can magnify a senior’s diminished ability to drive safely:

  • signs and road markings that are difficult to see or to read.
  • complex and confusing intersections.
  • older vehicles that lack automatic safety features.
  • newer dashboard instrument panels with multiple displays.
  • complex and confusing intersections.

If a senior who is close to you is finding driving more difficult than before, watch for signs of unsafe driving. If you notice any of the warning signs, it is time to reassess the senior’s road risk. Many small warning signs of unsafe driving can add up to the important decision to quit driving:

  • Abrupt lane changes, braking, or acceleration.
  • More frequent "close calls" (i.e., almost crashing), or dents and scrapes on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, curbs, etc.
  • 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 reading signs or navigating directions to get somewhere.
  • Missing highway exits or backing up after missing an exit.
  • Trouble moving the foot from the gas to the brake pedal, or confusing the two pedals.
  • Feeling more nervous or fearful while driving or feeling exhausted after driving.\
  • More conflict on the road: other drivers honking; frustration or anger at other drivers.
  • Oblivious to the frustration of other drivers, not understanding why they are honking.
  • Reluctance of friends or relatives to be in the car with the senior driving.
  • Getting lost more often.
  • Trouble paying attention to signals, road signs, pavement markings, or pedestrians.
  • Increased traffic tickets or "warnings" by traffic or law enforcement officers.

If you are concerned about an elderly driver, closely monitor their driving before deciding whether they need to brush up on their driving skills or give up their driver’s license altogether.

Talking to a senior driver who should stop driving
If it’s time to talk to a senior close to you about stopping 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, independence and independent living, self-sufficiency, involvement in social and religious activities, and spontaneity.

Understandably, driving is not a privilege that anyone wants to relinquish willingly. As important as it is to treat the senior driver with respect, it is also important to help the elderly driver retire from the road.

Start slowly and try to persuade the senior to give up the keys:

  • Be understanding about resistance.
  • Ask questions, rather than make demands. For example, “Would you consider not driving at night?”
  • Talk about safety considerations. Many senior drivers who shouldn’t be driving have already had an accident or some close calls. Remind them of the danger of serious injuries and that the safety of others is also at risk.
  • Explain transportation options. Help the senior driver see that living without a car won’t make them permanently homebound. Show them how to continue favorite activities and to remain mobile.
  • Emphasize monetary savings. The cost savings — insurance, gasoline, maintenance and repairs, and license and registration fees — associated with giving up a car may be a selling point for some older drivers.
  • Offer rides and visits. Volunteer to provide rides on a regular basis for things like grocery shopping, library visits, or doctors’ appointments.
  • Let them see the wisdom of the decision. Some elderly drivers may be aware of their faltering ability, but be reluctant to give up driving completely. They may be relieved to have someone else help to make the decision to stop driving.

When a senior driver refuses to give up the keys
If, however, the senior driver refuses to give up the keys, you may need to take stronger steps, such as:

  • Taking away the car keys.
  • Disabling the car or removing it from the senior driver’s residence.
  • Asking the driver’s doctor to write a prescription stating “no driving.”
  • Enlisting the help of a local police officer to explain the legal implications of unsafe driving.

Some seniors may forget that they aren’t supposed to drive. In that case, it’s even more important to remove the car or the keys to make it impossible to drive.
Helping a senior adjust to life without driving

  • Make sure that the senior has rides to their usual activities.
  • Help the senior to make a schedule. Some activities, like doctor’s appointments, require punctuality, and others, like going to the grocery store, may be more flexible.
  • Investigate home delivery. Find out which services deliver and help the senior to learn to use the Internet for shopping.
  • Offer rides and find others who can offer rides. Asking for rides is one of the hardest parts of not driving.
  • Some seniors may adjust better if they can keep their own car, but have others drive them.

Their own car may feel more comfortable and familiar, and the sense of loss from not driving may be lessened.

The Ohio Traffic Safety Office (OTSO) has developed a free informational program for senior drivers. The Senior Driver Informational Project is intended to give the senior driver new knowledge or refresh their knowledge of driving techniques. It briefly addresses 10 different driver safety-related topics for the older driver.

Each individual topic is only 15 minutes in length. The topics covered are ones that have been found to concern older drivers. This program is simply an informational program and is FREE to the senior driver. The entire program is presented with a computer PowerPoint presentation. The audience is not required to take notes, nor is a test given upon completion. Handouts and other related materials are provided to illustrate what was discussed during the session.

For more information, please contact: Ohio Traffic Safety Office, (614) 466-3250

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