Seniors Behind the Wheel – When Safety Impacts Independence

Is my senior loved one safe behind the wheel?

This is a question many caregivers are asking themselves right now, as will many more in the future.

Our senior loved ones understandably want to maintain their independence to come and go wherever and whenever they please without depending on some other means of transportation or being stuck at home.

Their car is a lifeline to the world and they don’t want to lose it.

But should they? Are they still able to safely drive — react to the others on the road, physically handle the steering or foot pedals, be able to see adequately in a variety of conditions or remember where they are going or how to get home?

Senior Driver Statistics

According to the Federal Highway Administration, there were approximately 23.1 million licensed drivers 70 and over in 2012, which is about 79% of those over 70 and about 11% of all drivers.

“An Institute survey of 2,500 drivers 65 and older found that drivers with reported impairments in memory, vision, mobility and/or medical conditions such as arthritis or diabetes were more likely than other drivers to self-limit their driving by making fewer trips, traveling shorter distances, or avoiding night driving, driving on interstates or driving in ice or snow.”

Recent crash statistics including fatalities from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show that rates involving seniors reached a peak in the 1990s and have been declining since then. Perhaps seniors are being more cautious as well as cars becoming more technologically advanced for safety especially for our seniors.

Auto Safety Advances and New Technology

There have been numerous technological advances in the auto industry that can help actually prevent accidents rather than help mitigate their affects once they happen. Some have been specifically designed for seniors, with designers using aging suits to replicate impairments common to aging.

These are manufacturers’ improvements that benefit us all, not just seniors.

  1. Anti-lock brakes
  2. Emergency response systems in the vehicle to get help if needed
  3. Smart headlights that adjust themselves to the oncoming traffic and improve night vision by reducing glare; they can also direct the beam of line around a curve to light the direction of travel
  4. Air bags, not just for the driver but passengers to protect torso and head as well as side airbags; seat belts with pre-tensioners or fitted/adapted for older adults stature and weight
  5. Self-parking cars
  6. Electronic stability control, a technology intended to increase a vehicle’s stability bringing it back into its own lane
  7. Rear view back up assistance, lane departure warning , blind spot mitigation and pedestrian alerts
  8. Alerts for accident avoidance, distracted/drowsy driver; controls that are voice activated by the driver
  9. Coming in the future: autonomous braking, cars talking to each other and even autonomous driving that are promised to substantially reduce accidents for everyone

There is a growing amount of study into the effects of alerts and devices within the vehicle that many older adults find distracting and potentially cause accidents. These distractions include a phone ringing in the car and even music playing. 13% of older drivers report this as a concern, 24% feel driving at night is a safety hazard and 12% don’t like changing lanes.

The flip side of those numbers are the results that 86% of drivers over 50 think new technology will help them drive more safely longer and 65% feel more confident if they have the latest technology in their vehicles.

AAA Study of Senior Drivers

The American Automobile Association (AAA) is investing in a study to be conducted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, which will look at driving behavior and health factors affecting older adults.

The study will focus on the impact of medications on driving safety as well as new vehicle technology that offers promise of helping senior drivers.

We will follow this study and report back when they have some results and insights.

Helping Seniors Be Safer Drivers

There are things caregivers can do and encourage their seniors to do to help them be safer on the road and independent longer. These are applicable to those of any age as well.

  • Attend a safe driving course, such as those sponsored by AARP and other organizations. This course is valuable as a refresher on rules of the road and offers strategies to compensate for age related changes to help seniors drive as long as safely possible. Most insurance companies offer seniors a discount for taking a safe driving course too!
  • Check with the doctor or pharmacist to see if any of your senior’s medications may be causing drowsiness or impaired vision that could impact their driving safety. Look for alternatives or ways to prevent dangerous interactions.
  • Encourage routine eye exams every year. If prescribed corrective lenses, be sure your senior is wearing the latest prescription every time they get behind the wheel.
  • Remind seniors to drive in appropriate conditions and avoid unsafe road conditions. Use well lit streets and roads with adequate signage and traffic lights.
  • If your senior is weak or has trouble with mobility, encourage them to participate in muscle strengthening activities that will help them handle the wheel better.
  • Encourage them to be cautious on the road, leave enough distance between cars, use signal indicators and know where they are headed to avoid quick lane changes.
  • Avoid distractions when driving such as loud music, GPS talking, eating or passengers who distract your attention. Turn off the cellphone.
  • Be sure your senior is getting enough sleep, being drowsy when driving is not a good mix just as driving and drinking is not a safe choice.
  • Keep the car properly maintained. Keep it in good running condition being sure lights work and all the systems are a go. Check the steering wheel settings and mirrors to be sure they are in the right position for safe driving as posture and vision change.
  • If modifications are needed, seek the advice of an occupational therapist or driving rehabilitation specialist. They can guide you on devices or positioning that could make operating the vehicle safer.

When Safety is a Real Concern

If you are concerned that your senior is having difficulty driving, ride along with them to a local store and observe their reactions and ability. If you don’t feel comfortable, they may not be safe. However, there may be interventions that will improve their safety. If not, it might be time to discuss giving up the car and this will be hard for everyone.

If you get to the point of discussing giving up the keys, be prepared to give specific examples of how they are unsafe. Remind them of the advantages of not driving, such as money savings in insurance and gas, communicate in a united front with immediate family members in agreement. Be sure to facilitate other transportation options, such as family drivers, public transportation or car services.

Be as understanding and supportive as possible for their feelings and emotions, as they lose their independence when driving is no longer possible. Some seniors may refuse your intervention. If they are unsafe on the road, you might want to consider taking further action, such as disabling the car, talking to the doctor or contacting the Department of Motor Vehicles for assistance. Some caregivers have ‘lost’ the car keys until other professionals can intervene on their behalf.

If they are safe and capable when driving, seniors should be able to drive as long as they can. The use of age alone as a determinant of when driving is no longer recommended would be wrong, as the ability to drive safely depends on individual abilities. As we age our abilities diminish, but at different rates for each of us.

There are many resources available to help you talk with your senior, find training and interventions, assess their abilities and for them to assess themselves. Here is a self rating tool from AAA that may help them see for themselves they need help or even that it’s time to stop driving.

What have you done to help your seniors that might help others?

2 thoughts on “Seniors Behind the Wheel – When Safety Impacts Independence”

  1. Some great tips and things to be aware of here,thanks. It’s the saddest thing in the world to watch an elderly bloke,after a lifetime of driving…zipping about and being Mr Independent…to have to finally give up his car keys. Heart-breaking stuff. One Client of mine likened it to having his legs removed! It is essential that these Seniors thereafter have appropriate Assisted Transport support so they can still remain a bustling part of their community. Failing that,another option might be to invest in an electric Mobilty Scooter allowing them to keep their King of the Road title in tact for a little longer…BEEP BEEP!

    • We agree Dollie. If it is unsafe for seniors to keep driving there should be some other transportation system set up for them to remain part of the community and able to meet their basic needs. That could be different for each senior but needs to be addressed. Thanks for your comments!

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