According to a 1997 NHTSA study, when people over 65 made up 9% of the population, they accounted for 14% of the traffic fatalities. According to USA Today, analysts predict that by 2030 people over 65 will be involved in 25% of all traffic fatalities. This is partially due to the fact that the older population is growing faster than other segments of the population. People are living longer and soon all the Baby Boomers will have become seniors.
Aging contributes to poorer driving in a number of ways. As people age, their joints often become stiff and their muscles become weaker. Arthritis can be a problem. This makes it more difficult to manipulate the steering wheel, pedals, and transmission. Even for those who are strong enough to operate the vehicle, their response times will be slower, so they won’t be able to adjust in quickly moving traffic. Intersections are especially dangerous for those who cannot drive defensively and responsively.
Eyesight tends to get weaker, as well. Some people are unable to drive at night because glare from streetlights and headlights obfuscate everything.
Others have trouble with hearing, which is especially dangerous. The driver who is hard of hearing will not receive horn signals from other drivers, may not notice a train coming, or an ambulance.
Parkinson’s disease and stroke are more common with older people. Both of these will limit a person’s ability to control a vehicle because they will have reduced motor control skills. Other age-related diseases include dementia and Alzheimer’s. Drivers who struggle with these can forget familiar places and be unable to find their way home. Also, these drivers in particular fail to realize that they have a problem with driving and may fight anyone attempting to protect them from the road environment.
Older people take more medications, which often have side effects like drowsiness, lightheadedness, and dizziness. Of course, a driver experiencing any of these will be compromised and could really hurt themselves or someone else on the road.
When observing and considering your elderly loved one’s driving, ask yourself these questions:
- Do other drivers honk at them often?
- Have they had any accidents or unexplained dents in the vehicle?
- Do they get lost?
- Are they paying attention while driving or are they more easily distracted than in the past?
- Have other family members or friends expressed concern?
- Has a doctor recommended any driving habit changes?
- Has the driver himself or herself expressed anxiety about driving on highways or at night?
- Do they complain about the quickness of other drivers on the road?
- Are they following the rules of the road?
- Are they yielding to pedestrians?
- Do they have trouble staying in the lane, braking on time, or noticing oncoming traffic?
- Are they merging into fast traffic well?
- Have they ever confused the brake and the accelerator?
- Do they have trouble moving the foot from one to the other?
- Have they been pulled over by a police officer recently?
What Should I Do?
If you notice issues like these with an elderly loved one, first test them. You are not alone. Statistics show that elderly people are the most dangerous drivers on the road besides teenagers and there are no states with an age limit on driving rights. This is why the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles Safety Programs has some helpful resources. Also, certified driving rehabilitation specialists can evaluate your loved ones and once they have determined whether your loved one needs help, they can provide counseling or mobility equipment as necessary.
You must talk to them. When you bring up the subject, be prepared. Do not just blurt it out, but have good alternatives to driving that meet his or her needs. Offer solutions. Do not be accusatory. Stick to the issue of driving skills rather than focusing on their age or disability. Acknowledge that maintaining their independence is important, just as road safety is important. Be ready to overcome any potential defensiveness or anger with positivity and support.
If they reject you, you can enlist the help of others, particularly friends and family. Doctors can be of assistance, too. Most states do not require doctors to report that a patient may be an unsafe driver. Privacy laws often require a doctor to get the patient’s permission first. However, a doctor can be persuasive. Ask the doctor to examine your loved one with an eye towards driving ability and see if the doctor agrees with your assessment.
Finally, in most states you can file an unsafe driver report with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Be specific and provide supporting documentation. They may not move very quickly but they will follow up.
If none of these are successful, you may want to consider disabling the vehicle, taking the keys, or taking other aggressive actions to protect the lives of your loved one and others. Elderly people can kill themselves and others before they realize they even have a problem.