Recommending that an aging family member stop driving is an uncomfortable subject in our car-dependent society. At some point, many family caregivers begin to fear that their aging loved ones are no longer safe behind the wheel. Hesitation to act on this worry is normal, but ignoring the warning signs that a senior is unfit to drive can be a recipe for disaster.
Everyone including drivers, healthcare providers and the community at large have a responsibility for safe use of motor vehicles.
For some older adults, taking away their driving privileges can be traumatic and can even cause depression. Losing the ability to drive deals a significant blow to one’s independence. They are no longer able to get to church, go the supermarket, or visit friends whenever they feel like it. Instead, they will have to rely on other methods of transportation to do the things they need and want to do.
Age alone does not determine if someone drives safely, but aging can affect driving ability. Specific physical, cognitive, visual or hearing abilities may decline with advancing age for some people. Those with dementia and Alzheimer’s may find it more difficult to react quickly to a variety of circumstances.
Functional impairments can interfere with driving ability and may become particularly evident in stressful or challenging driving situations such as turning left, merging or changing lanes.
Many older drivers also take medications, which can impair driving ability at any age but can be especially impairing for an older person.
A recent report from the National Library of Medicine shows that compared with younger drivers, senior drivers are more likely to be involved in certain types of motor vehicle accidents such as angle collisions, overtaking or merging crashes, and intersection crashes. Studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that among passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2019, multiple vehicle crashes at intersections accounted for 40 percent of the accidents for drivers 80 and older, compared with 20 percent for drivers ages 16-59.
ADOT’s 2020 Annual Motor Vehicle Crash Facts report showed that 218 people age 55 and older died in vehicle crashes in Arizona (49 of those age 75 and older) and 6,920 adults 55 and older were reported injured in crashes last year (1,238 age 75 and older).
Arizona has no laws against driving with dementia, but it does have laws about medical conditions which impact a person’s ability to drive safely. As a general rule, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance, individuals with early stage or mild dementia who wish to continue driving should have their driving skills evaluated through the Arizona Department of Transportation. FCA also suggests that individuals with moderate to severe dementia should not drive.
Even with physician-patient or a psychologist-client confidentially relationship, a physician, registered nurse practitioner or psychologist may voluntarily report a patient to ADOT who has a medical or psychological condition that in his or her opinion could significantly impair the person’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.
If you have direct knowledge of a person’s medical status that would affect his or her ability to operate a motor vehicle safely, you may complete a driver condition/behavior report on the ADOT website. Call: 602-255-0072 for more information or visit: azdot.gov to learn more.
Many people adjust their driving habits on their own as they get older and recognize difficulties by avoiding night driving with vision problems or driving less often and to less distant destinations.
Because we all age differently, there is no way to set one age when everyone should stop driving. So, how do you know if you should stop? Answering a few questions may help you decide:
• Do other drivers often honk at me?
• Have I had some accidents or “fender benders”?
• Do I get lost, even on roads I know?
• Do cars or people walking seem to appear out of nowhere?
• Do I get distracted while driving?
• Have family, friends, or my doctor said they’re worried about my driving?
• Do I have trouble moving my foot between the gas and the brake pedals, or do I sometimes confuse the two?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it may be time to talk with your doctor about driving or have a driving assessment.
You can check your own driving skills. There are online tests and courses available at the AARP website (aarp.org/auto/driver-safety/).
You may voluntarily stop driving or a family member or other loved one may have to weigh in on that decision.
According to the National Institute on Aging, the most effective method for broaching this subject of giving up the car keys is to have a candid talk with your loved one and attempt to reach a voluntary agreement that it is time to consider alternate transportation options.
Many people worry about getting to the grocery store, to church, or to medical appointments if they no longer drive. There are viable alternatives to driving, such as rides from family and friends, public transportation, ride-sharing programs, church volunteers, and more. There are local services that can help.
• Valley Assistance Services has a program to assist seniors enrolled in their program who no longer drive and need help with transportation to shopping or medical appointments. Call 520-625-5966 for more information or visit: valleyassistanceservices.org
• Friends in Deed offers a variety of transportation programs for clients. A wheelchair van is available to clients for doctor and dentist visits in Green Valley, Sahuarita, and Tucson. Call 520-625-1150 or visit fid-gv.org.
• Sun Shuttle Dial-a-Ride provides transportation in the Green Valley/Sahuarita areas. Reservations are required. Call: 529-792-9222.
• United Community Health Center offers free medical transportation for enrolled patients. Call 520-407-5600.
• Posada Life Community Services hosts a Senior Lunch program offering frozen meals for pick-up (for those able to drive) or delivery to those who can no longer drive safely. Suggested $3 donation. Call to enroll: 520-393-6840.
• Mobile Meals of Southern Arizona will deliver meals on weekdays to those who wish to stay home or no longer drive. Affordably priced. To enroll, call: 520-622-1600.