Senior citizens, like most people, prefer to live in their own home as long as possible but as we discussed in Part I of Too Old to Drive? the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle is a critical element to maintaining an independent lifestyle.

Although some communities feature affordable public transportation or offer services dedicated to driving senior citizens to doctor appointments and the local grocery store, many other communities are not so accommodating to elderly residents.With almost a quarter of the U.S. population estimated to be 65 or older by 2025 and a large majority of those aging adults left to their own devices for their transportation needs, it is important to plan for the physical and mental challenges that may affect a senior citizen’s ability to drive.

To help assess an individual’s current physical ability to drive, ask if he/she has:

Trouble looking over your shoulder
Trouble moving your foot from the gas to the break pedal
Difficulty turning the steering wheel
Difficulty reading or recognizing street signs
Eye pain or difficulty seeing when there is glare from oncoming headlights
Taken any medications that may impair driving

If you are concerned about someone’s driving ability, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) suggests you ride along with the individual to observe, paying particular attention to whether or not the individual:

Stops at every stop sign as well as looks both ways to check for cross traffic
Stops at all red lights
Correctly yields the right-of-way
Properly responds to other vehicles, motorcyclists, bicyclists, pedestrians and any road hazards
Successfully merges and can safely change lanes
Stays in the appropriate lane when turning as well as when driving straight
Maintains a safe and appropriate driving speed for the road conditions
Stops or slows inappropriately, such as at a green light
Drives to slowly, impeding the safe flow of traffic
Becomes lost or disoriented while driving on familiar routes

While these questions and observations can help determine if someone may be an unsafe driver or has physical challenges limiting their ability to drive safely, no one should rush to judgment. There are an increasing number of opportunities to improve an older adult’s driving skills and prolong their ability to drive safely and depending upon the circumstances, undergoing occupational or physical therapy to improve motor skills or completing a training course designed specifically for older drivers may be useful options.

Organizations such as AARP, AAA, NHTSA and the American Occupational Therapy Association have developed numerous informational, training and resource materials specifically for older drivers. Several automobile insurance companies may even give a discount on the premium when an older driver completes a training course, like the online AARP Driver Safety Course.

Older drivers might also consider voluntary measures to reduce the risk to themselves and others, such as limiting themselves to trips to the doctor, food shopping or visiting nearby family and friends during daylight hours. Avoiding driving at night, on a major highway, during bad weather conditions and during rush hour traffic are also good practices for older drivers.

It might also be helpful to adapt or purchase a new vehicle that compensates for common health issues that may effect older drivers, such as reverse monitoring and back-up cameras, blind-spot warning systems and crash-avoidance technologies, all of which are becoming increasingly standard equipment in mid-level, new vehicles.

If there is any question about an individual’s physical ability to drive safely, make an appointment with a driver rehabilitation specialist to evaluate and help identify any adaptive equipment that would be most helpful. A driver rehabilitation specialist can determine a person’s needs and medical condition by testing muscle strength, flexibility and range of motion, coordination and reaction time, judgment and decision-making abilities as well as the ability to drive with any recommended adaptive equipment. To find a qualified driver rehabilitation specialist in your area to perform an evaluation, consult the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED) or the American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA).

Depending on the requirements of each state, older drivers may face specific procedures to renew their driving license, such as a requirement to renew the license in person rather than online or by mail as well as additional vision and road tests that are not required of younger drivers to renew their licenses.

In addition to the aforementioned links, for additional information and resources, please check out the NHTSA booklet, Adapting Motor Vehicles for Older Drivers as well as Senior Drivers by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the NHTSA’s Drive Well Toolkit.

Remember, it is an individual’s driving performance – not age – that determines fitness to drive.

If the time has come that you or a family member is no longer able to maintain an independent lifestyle, contact ElderLink to discuss elder care services and options available throughout California.