For many seniors, driving represents independence and freedom and it can be difficult to consider giving it up even as it becomes obvious to others that the time has come. This guide exists to help family members concerned about senior driver safety consider the issues involved, know what to look for, highlight choices and options, and find where to turn for help.
How do I know if my loved one is still a capable driver?
While there is no single litmus test for evaluating driving capacity alone, families should consider the following. These can include more dents and dings on the car, impaired vision, hearing or balance, tremors or involuntary movements, restricted flexibility, anxiety and confusion, or significantly increased volume on televisions. These may be a sign of:
Decreased vision and hearing can affect a driver's ability to gauge danger. With inadequate sensory input, traffic lights, signs, or pedestrians may not be as visible; sirens and horns may not be audible; and warning bells may not be effective.
If your loved one’s vision or hearing seems to be worsening and/or she refuses to use supportive aids, it may be time to consider putting the brakes on your loved one’s driving.
As we age, many people naturally suffer from reduced mobility. Reduced mobility from decreased flexibility can make looking left and right much more difficult.
In addition to decreased flexibility, muscle weakness can make driving more difficult. Tasks such as operating the gas and brake pedals or turning the steering wheel sharply such as to avoid an obstacle can be difficult or impossible. If you notice your loved one's flexibility or strength seems to be worsening, these could be signs of reduced mobility.
Impaired Cognitive Processing
While not all seniors lose their mental acuity, the reality is that for many, cognition slows. Driving requires the capability to react immediately to events — an ability that your aging loved one may be losing. If your loved one seems to be struggling to make decisions rapidly or react quickly, this may be of concern.
If your senior has a progressive medical condition or requires medications, it is important that you understand exactly how these may affect your loved one. Certain diseases may cause patients to become increasingly immobile or have less control over their body. Certain medications, just like alcohol or other drugs, can cause drowsiness or decreased reaction times.
I'm seeing signs that concern me…what can I do now?
The first step, as hard as it may be, is to have a frank and open conversation with your loved one about your concerns for her wellbeing and safety. Acknowledge that you need to tell her something that may be difficult to hear but that you love her and feel it is important enough that you need to talk about it.
A good strategy in a conversation such as this one is to use "noticing" phrases rather than accusatory ones. Sharing observations about driving or a senior's condition is far less threatening than a direct attack.
Keep communication as calm and reasonable as possible under the circumstances; make sure that she understands you are bringing this up because your primary concern is her safety and the safety of others on the road, not attacking or belittling her.
What can I do if my loved one rejects my concerns?
For some seniors, the loss of driving privileges equates to a loss of their independence and they cannot or will not listen to reason. Now may be a time to allow them to "prove" their abilities perhaps with a driving assessment, physical examination, or even attendance at a refresher course for driving. We provide you with a few resources in the next few sections.
Depending on the results of those evaluations, you may need to educate yourself (and them) on the public transportation options in your area. In extreme cases, you may need to ask for (or simply take) the car keys, find a way to disable the vehicle, or make an unsafe driver report to the Washington State Department of Licensing.
What can I do if they refuse to give up driving?
If you have seen signs of unsafe driving and tried to talk to your loved one and she simply refuses to acknowledge the reality of the situation, it is time to get help.
You can report unsafe drivers to the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL); the DOL may choose to seek updated medical or visual information from a medical professional and/or have the driver retake written or performance-based driving tests. If the conclusion is that the senior poses a threat behind the wheel, the Department may revoke your loved one’s driving privileges.
What Washington State laws apply to senior drivers?
In Washington, drivers over the age of 70 must apply in-person for each and every renewal of their license, which must occur at least every six years. This renewal process includes a vision test and new photo ID. Fees apply.
What resources are available to loved ones of a senior driver?
Concerned family members may wish to pursue any or all of these available resources for their senior driver:
Senior Safe Driving Courses
Many organizations, such as the American Automobile Association (AAA) and AARP, offer courses in senior driver safety. Courses covers physical attributes of aging and how they apply to driving skills, updated driving rules and regulations, safety equipment, vehicle maintenance, and specific driver issues such as merging, yielding, following distances, and speed. Completion of the course can reduce insurance rates.
Senior Driving Websites
AAA's Senior Driving website contains a few choice tools including a self-assessment questionnaire, an interactive tool known as the Roadwise Review, and comprehensive behind-the-wheel driving evaluations.
The AARP Driver Safety Website includes a customized Driver Resource Center including state laws, interactive tools, and exercise programs. There is also, as of 2014, a Smart Driver driving refresher course for older adults.
Professional Driver Evaluations
You may also consider getting a professional driver evaluation from AAA, which can include either a driving evaluation by a driving instructor or a clinically based evaluation by an Occupational Therapist Driving Rehabilitation Specialist.
There are also driver evaluations offered through CHC Services, which provide objective information, suggestions, and tips and techniques for improvement; the objective nature of the evaluation can help avoid some of the emotional entanglements of family members. (These services are currently unavailable, but CHC Services hopes to have them back soon.)
What resources are available to seniors who have given up driving?
While driving offers freedom of mobility, seniors can get around in other ways:
- Public Transportation is available through the King Country Metro Transit. For those needing extra assistance, additional programs exist to provide financial as well as physical support and assistance.
- Volunteer Transportation offers individualized door-to-door services to King County residents over the age of 60.
- Brightstar offers both errand and senior transportation services.
If your loved one would rather walk to get around, make sure you show her our tips for pedestrian safety in Seattle.
Facing the reality of an elderly family member reaching the point where she can no longer safely drive is difficult but necessary. For more information on safe driving for you and your loved ones, check out our car accidents blog and library.