Weekly column in the Washington Times Communities by Laurie Edwards-Tate

America is the land of fast cars and open roads. We relish our freedom and we love being able to get behind the wheel and go anywhere, anytime.

Our cars have meaning far behind mere transportation in American culture: They are important symbols for status and independence.

But the act of driving itself is not carefree. Driving is an increasingly demanding activity. It takes focus, motor skills and the ability to make quick judgments.

Some drivers remain extremely capable well into their senior years. There is no specific age when a driver should stop operating a motor vehicle. But the truth is that disease and the decline of vision, reflexes, and physical condition can force a driver to give up his or her license. This can happen at age 60, or not until age 90. Or never.

Many drivers recognize when their skills diminish and voluntarily relinquish their keys. Nearly 600,000 people limit their driving or stop entirely every year. But some seniors cling to their need for independence to the point they put themselves and others in danger.

It is often an adult child who must tell an aging parent or relative that their driving behavior has become hazardous. It is emotional because it symbolizes a loss of independence and personal dignity. It is demoralizing and embarrassing.

But it cannot be ignored or many lives including your loved one’s life could be at risk.

When should someone stop driving? AARP offers this list of warning signs to look for:

  • The driver feels nervous, fearful or uncomfortable while driving
  • There are dents and scrapes on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, curbs etc.
  • The driver has trouble staying within their lane of traffic
  • The driver frequently becomes lost and has trouble using a map or GPS
  • The driver doesn’t pay attention or misses signals and road signs
  • The driver cannot react quickly enough to unexpected situations, such as a driver in front of them stopping abruptly or changing lanes unexpectedly
  • Medical conditions or medications are affecting the driver’s ability to handle the car safely
  • The driver starts having frequent “close calls” (i.e. almost crashing)
  • The driver cannot judge gaps in traffics at intersections and on highway on and off ramps
  • Other drivers are using their horns and indicating frustration with an older driver
  • Friends or relatives no longer want to be a passenger in the driver’s car
  • The driver is easily distracted or having a hard time concentrating while driving
  • The driver has a hard time turning around to check over their shoulder while backing up or changing lanes
  • The driver has received numerous traffic tickets or “warnings” by traffic or law enforcement officers in the last year or two

If you find yourself concerned about an older driver, take these steps: First, talk with the older driver and explore any health issues that might be affecting driving skills.

For example, if vision at night is a problem, the driver could limit driving to daytime hours and avoid long trips. Are new medications affecting the ability to drive due to drowsiness or slowed reflexes? Are medical conditions limiting mobility or causing stress? A discussion with a medical professional (with permission of the driver) may uncover some issues that could possibly be corrected or mitigated.

Take a safe, short trip with the older driver. Keep notes about problems that you observe. Don’t make remarks or try to help during the trip. It will only distract the driver and make him or her nervous. Review your observations after the drive is over.

If there is a serious problem, it may be best to get a third party to intervene. Ask a medical professional or law enforcement officer to request the driver be tested by your state’s department of motor vehicles. A family member can also make this request in most states, and it can often be anonymous. The IIHS has a list of state laws concerning elderly drivers online.

The AAA Foundation for Driver Safety has a marvelous website addressing issues faced by older drivers, SeniorDrivers.org You will find a variety of resources including refresher driving courses and suggestions for mature drivers to maintain safe driving practices. There are several excellent self-assessment tests to see if your driving or motor skills may have diminished.

It is helpful to have alternative transportation options in place before the day comes where you must hang up your car keys for good. Visit the website Getting Around for resources and ideas for coping with your new circumstances.

If all else fails and you believe the situation with a senior driver has become too dangerous, you must take the keys and remove the car. Although difficult and emotional, it could be a lifesaving decision.

Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!

Laurie Edwards-Tate, MS, is President and CEO of At Your Home Familycare in San Diego, California. Read more  LifeCycles in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow At Your Home Familycare on Facebook and on Twitter @AYHFamilycare.
Copyright © 2011 by At Your Home Familycare

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