Understanding Older Drivers

Getting older does not necessarily mean a person's driving days are over. But it’s important to plan ahead and take steps to ensure the safety of your loved ones on the road. Learn more about how to recognize and discuss changes in your older loved one's driving.

 

For most of us, driving represents freedom, control, and competence. Driving lets us go to the places we want or need to go. For many of us – even as we get older – driving is important economically. We drive to get to and from work, and sometimes as part of our jobs. Driving is important socially; it lets us stay connected to our communities and favorite activities.

Driving appears to be relatively easy, but in fact it is a complex skill. Our ability to drive safely is affected by changes in our physical and mental conditions. Many of these changes take place as we get older, though in different ways and at different times.

Research shows that age is not the sole predictor of driving ability and safety. But there is ample evidence to show that most of us experience age-related declines in our physical and mental abilities – declines that can signal a greater crash risk.

One key to safety is knowing when a driver is at increased risk – even if we ourselves are that driver. So we must know what signs to look for, and pay attention to them. We need to understand how our driving environment changes, and what we should do to respond to those changes. We can learn about community resources that can keep us driving safely longer or keep us connected to the activities in our lives if we must cut back or stop driving altogether.

Driving or riding a card is how most older adults get around. Most people 65 and older change how they drive as they age, choosing to drive only during daylight hours, for example, or limiting where they drive, or cutting back on how often they drive.

 

The decision about driving for older adults is an emotionally charged issue, but it does not have to be that way.

Talking to an Older Driver

If you think you need to have a conversation with an older driver about his or her driving abilities, remember that many older drivers look at driving as a form of independence. Bringing up the subject of their driving abilities can make some drivers defensive. So, be prepared with your observations and questions, and—if necessary—provide possible transportation alternatives. 

These conversations don't happen often enough, and when they do, the older person fears – sometimes accurately – that someone is trying to take the car keys away. Unfortunately, discussions about continuing to drive often begin too late. And very often, families are asking the wrong questions.

Answering the following questions may help you decide if you need to initiate a conversation with an older driver about driving safely:

  • Getting lost on routes that should be familiar?
  • Noticing new dents or scratches to the vehicle?
  • Receiving a ticket for a driving violation?
  • Experiencing a near-miss or crash recently?
  • Being advised to limit/stop driving due to a health reason?
  • Overwhelmed by road signs and markings while driving?
  • Taking any medication that might affect driving safely?
  • Speeding or driving too slowly for no reason?
  • Suffering from any illnesses that may affect driving skills?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might need to talk with your loved one about safe driving. 

What You Can Do

Talking with an older person about their driving is often difficult. Most of us delay that talk until the person’s driving has become what we believe to be dangerous. At that point, conversations can be tense and awkward for everyone involved. But there are things you can say and do to make those conversations more productive and less tense.

Learning How to Understand and Influence Older Drivers​ will help you support an older driver’s needs, as well as finding community resources that can help put your older-driver plan into action. If you have decided to initiate a conversation with an older loved one about driving safely, take these three steps:

  1. Collect information;
  2. Develop a plan of action; and
  3. Follow through on the plan.

You might also want to consider learning how to adapt a motor vehicle to accommodate the unique needs of an older driver (PDF, 629 KB) and discussing it with your loved one.


  Reprinted from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Used with permission