Seniors and driving

When is it time to park their cars for good?

By the time you get to adulthood you might think that all those awkward "talks" between you and your parents are done with. There's one more difficult conversation that can arise as parents become elderly, possibly even a little confused. That conversation is about when it's time to retire from driving. Adult children want their parents to be safe while ageing parents may feel perfectly able to navigate to and from home.

The issue of when someone should stop driving can be a mine field and it's never helpful to hear those occasional news reports of accidents caused by seniors. While these stories put a spotlight on the safety of older drivers, it turns out that, as a group, they have a pretty safe driving record.

Seniors driving

The Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) reports that in Ontario, collision rate for drivers over 55 is lower than any group. However the incidence of fatal crashes increases in seniors over the age of 70 and those who survive take longer to recover.

Ageing brings with it a number of physical changes that can affect the ability to drive safely. We become less able to tolerate glare; our peripheral vision and depth perception declines; our risk of developing eye conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration increases. Reaction time slows and we lose flexibility, making it more difficult to carry out that quick shoulder check or unexpected stop.

Older drivers drive less on weekends, but take to the road in higher numbers mid-week. The majority of their trips are to appointments and shopping and they drive more during daylight hours, which could be their way of accommodating for diminished vision.

Car safety experts point out that it's not a person's age that determines fitness to drive; it's their health. Medically at-risk drivers, those with certain illnesses or who are taking certain medications, are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents. Some of the medical conditions that can affect driving include respiratory illnesses, irregular heart rhythms and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), sometimes called mini-strokes. Medications that influence a person's ability to stay alert such as antihistamines were also found to affect driving ability.

It's conditions that cause cognitive impairment, such as dementia, that are associated with the highest accident risk. While some drivers with early dementia are safe on the road, as their condition advances, they are unlikely to realize they shouldn't be driving. Family members who drive with them many not notice the deteriorating driving skills as it may happen gradually.

It's often an accident or a series of near misses that alerts family or the person's doctor that there may be a problem.

We may not be able to control whether we get a chronic disease, but we can take good care of our health to ensure we maintain the flexibility and muscle strength needed to drive. In addition to staying fit, mature drivers can sharpen their road skills by taking a refresher course. These are offered by a number of agencies including the Automobile Association, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) and the Canada Safety Council.

Approaching the issue of whether or not someone is safe on the road takes tact and compassion. For many people, the ability to drive is tied up in their feelings of independence and self-esteem. It may help to provide specific examples of driving situations that worried you.

Seniors driving

If the conversation gets contentious, it may be a good idea to involve your family doctor. Physicians have a number of tools to measure physical and mental capacity that they can use to determine whether a person should still be driving. In almost all Canadian provinces, physicians have an obligation to report to the Ministry of Transport anyone they believe may be unsafe on the road.

Hanging up the car keys doesn't have to mean being stuck at home. Some community organization offer rides to seniors. Opting for public transit or a taxi can prove to be a surprisingly cheap way to travel when compared to the cost of fuel and vehicle maintenance.

Driving experts agree that it's important for all of us, not just our parents, to think about and plan for the day we can no longer drive. It may be awkward to question a parent's driving ability, but if it's done with respect, it can preserve the person's dignity and possibly ensure their safety.

After all, it's never a bad thing, at any age, for drivers to re-evaluate driving skills.

Safety Family