Over the past few years, news outlets have brought to national attention a spate of alarming stories about tragic traffic accidents caused by elderly drivers. Indeed, as America ages, the safety of its older drivers is being increasingly scrutinized. Many states have passed laws aimed at keeping dangerous older drivers off the road. In Oregon, seniors may be required to retake the state driving test if they exhibit physical or mental warning signs, have a poor driving record, or if they have been reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) by concerned relatives. But the car is not only a means of transportation; it can be an almost sacred symbol of independence for older Americans. So, older people shouldn’t be forbidden to drive simply because they’ve reached some arbitrary number of years. Whether they drive should be determined by their capabilities, not by counting birthdays.
For seniors considering their own driving ability, the key is self-awareness. As put by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the guide Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully, “People who can accurately assess their fitness to drive can adjust their driving habits. With smart self-management, you can retain the personal mobility that comes with driving, while limiting the risks to yourself and others.”
It’s particularly important for seniors to be mindful of changes in their body (including from medication side-effects) that can make driving dangerous. These changes can include:
- Decreased vision
- Decreased reaction time or coordination
- Decreased range of motion
To help seniors gauge their own driving abilities, in these realms and others, the American Automobile Association (AAA) hosts a free and confidential interactive driving evaluation on their website.
It’s also wise to watch out for the safety of older friends and family members who may not notice or admit that they have a reduced ability to drive. Here are some tell-tale signs of dangerous driving to look out for:
- Frequent and unexplained dents, scrapes, and dings on the car
- Receiving more traffic citations or warnings than usual in the last year
- Overlooking traffic signals, exits, or road markings
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Difficulty staying in the lane of travel, or having difficulty changing lanes
For those who suspect that their older loved one is not driving safely, it may be time to sit down and have a conversation. The NHTSA published a document, How to Understand and Influence Older Drivers, to help concerned loved ones approach this delicate topic. Suggestions include riding along with your loved one to see how well they drive first hand, and carefully recording your observations should you need to share them with your loved one’s doctor or the local DMV. In the most difficult situations, when an older driver is not being reasonable or realistic about their driving ability, you can contact the your local department of motor vehicles to request them directly intervene.
Seniors should realize that giving up the car keys doesn’t mean being stuck at home. To learn more about local transportation options for seniors and disabled people, contact your local Area Agency on Aging, which can be located at www.eldercare.gov.
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