Obviously no one wants to take the keys away from mom or dad, but no one wants them to become a threat to themselves or others, either. Be proactive by riding along with your parents and checking up on their driving abilities. Look for the following red flags. If you notice any of these warning signs, see our suggestions on how to approach the conversation below.
Damage to the vehicle
Inspect your parent’s car for signs of scrapes or minor collisions. Does the vehicle have any new dents or scratches? Damage to the car could indicate a near-miss or accidental crash. Additionally, check for damage to their mailbox, mailbox, fence, driveway area, or garage door. Hitting stationary objects or having close calls is a sign of deteriorating driving skills. According to dailycaring.com, close calls could be due to “misjudging gaps in traffic, misreading traffic signals or road signs, or underestimating the speed of oncoming cars.”
AAA notes that “Rear-end crashes, parking lot fender-benders, and side collisions while turning across traffic rank as the most common mishaps for drivers with diminishing skills, depth perception or reaction time.” Two or more collisions or close calls in the past couple of years is too many.
Have they mentioned receiving a warning or a ticket for a traffic violation or impaired driving recently? Have their insurance premiums increased or has their policy been inexplicably canceled? AAA warns that “tickets can predict greatest risk for collision” and that two or more traffic tickets in two years is cause for concern.
Obviously your parents should not be driving if their doctor has advised them to stop due to medications or a medical condition that may affect their driving skills. According to AAA, “two-thirds of people ages 65 and older take five or more daily medications that can impair their safe driving ability.” Any prescription or over-the-counter medication with the “do not operate heavy machinery” warning should be heeded. AAA goes on to name the medications that can “affect vision and perception, decision-making, reaction time, and maneuvering” as “tranquilizers, narcotic pain pills, sleep medicines, some antidepressants, cough medicines, antihistamines, and decongestants.”
Vision-related changes and problems like macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts can interfere with an older adult’s ability to see traffic signals, road signs, and other drivers properly. If mom or dad has become reluctant or nervous to drive at night, it could be due to vision impairment. Make sure they have an annual eye exam and that they follow doctor’s orders.
Signs of cognitive decline
According to SeniorAdvisor.com forgetting to use a seatbelt, headlights, or turn signals; getting confused by or ignoring road signs and traffic signals; and stopping at all intersections for no reason can all be signs of cognitive decline.
AAA advises to watch out for the senior signaling incorrectly, as well as weaving between, drifting across, or straddling lanes. Senior Advisor advises that “New road rage or anxiety behind the wheel; slowed response time; and trouble making decisions in the moment” are signs of cognitive decline.
Perhaps they just aren’t paying attention, but all of these changes in their driving habits can be signs of cognitive decline. According to AAA, disobeying traffic signals could be due to an inability to “spot the signs in a crowded, constantly moving visual field.”
Another clear warning sign is if your parent is confusing the gas with the breaks or pressing them simultaneously. This could be due to cognitive or physical decline. AAA advises that “Drivers who lift their legs to move from the accelerator to the brake, rather than keeping a heel on the floor and pressing with the toes, may be signaling waning leg strength.”
Driving too slow or too fast
Perhaps your father has always been somewhat of a speed racer, but if you notice that your parent is driving recklessly in the given conditions, it’s time to talk. This can include speeding in residential areas or school zones or driving too slowly on highways. AAA suggests seniors may be compensating for “slowed reflexes or reduced reaction time.” Either they don’t realize their speed, or they’re “overcompensating due to a fear of being noticed for driving too slowly.”
Going the wrong way, getting lost in a familiar area, forgetting their destination, or becoming disoriented easily “could indicate problems with working memory or early cognitive decline” according to AAA.
Is your parent more stressed, confused, or exhausted than usual behind the wheel? Daily Caring states that signs of confusion, anger, or distraction could indicate that “your parent is working hard to compensate for any physical challenges.”
How is their response time? Notice any new road rage? Are they getting honked at or passed frequently in slow traffic situations? According to AAA, “This may indicate difficulty keeping pace with fast-changing conditions.”
Is your parent having problems parking, backing up, or turning the car around? It could be due to physical limitations like an inability to turn their head due to stiff joints or pain. This can prevent them from checking their blind spots and rearview for lane changes or backing up. It isn’t necessarily a sign they need to stop driving, but they may need to go to physical therapy to increase their mobility. A backup camera certainly wouldn’t hurt.
If your parent can no longer see over the wheel due to osteoporosis or a curved spine, try using a cushion.
Are other people scared to get in the car with your mom or dad? That’s a huge red flag. Take friends’, relatives’, and neighbors’ concerns to heart. If your driver always wants someone to come with them in the car, that’s another warning sign. AAA says that using a co-pilot “to help respond to situations in the driving environment” can signal that your parent is compensating for their declining driving abilities. Bottom line: If they’re not comfortable driving solo, they don’t need to be on the road.
Best ways to approach a conversation about not driving anymore
If you witness any of these warning signs, it’s time to have the talk. Don’t bring it up while you’re in the passenger’s seat. Wait to address your observations, questions, and concerns until you have mom or dad’s full attention–preferably when they’re fed, rested, and in a relatively good mood.
AAA suggests “discussing the benefits of getting a comprehensive driving assessment to help identify and address any risky driving behaviors and maximize safe driving.” Use their self-rating tool to Assess Driving Skills & Ability.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reminds us that “many older drivers look at driving as a form of independence,” so bringing up their driving abilities can make them defensive. Senior Advisor advises that your parent may be more apt to listen to a health professional rather than a family member.
Sometimes adjustments can be made before drastic measures have to be taken. According to AAA “poor driving behaviors can be improved with training or by addressing an underlying medical condition that affects driving.” They suggest soliciting help from a medical professional to “help identify treatment options that may help improve – not limit – safe driving ability.” The NHTSA offers material on how aging can affect driving and how to continue driving safely as you age, such as adapting a vehicle to meet specific needs.
However, if it is time to take away the keys, NHTSA‘s article on How to Understand and Influence Older Drivers recommends looking into alternate transportation. List the places they need to go on a weekly basis, how they currently get there, and new ways to complete those errands.