One question we often hear from adult children across the state of Michigan is how they can tell if an aging parent is still safe behind the wheel of their car. The older a parent is, the more families wonder how they will know when it is time to encourage their senior loved one to hang up their keys for good.

National Older Driver Awareness Week 2016 is December 5th through 9th. We are joining our voice with other aging services providers across the country to share important information on older drivers and the unique challenges they face.

Does Aging Impact a Senior’s Ability to Drive Safely?

Part of the challenge in assessing a senior’s driving ability is that it can’t be determined solely by their age. While we all have some similar aging experiences, everyone ages differently. Your 82 year old father may be a much better driver than a 70 year old who lives with multiple chronic health problems.

Here’s what Michigan families should know about aging issues that can affect driving:

  • Medication Side Effects: Some medications commonly used by older adults can cause drowsiness. A few of the worst offenders are pain medications, sleeping pills, antidepressants, and over-the-counter cough medicine.
  • Flexibility: While many older adults are active and fit, they can still suffer from a loss of flexibility. This makes it difficult to turn and look over their shoulder to back out of a parking space or merge on to the freeway.
  • Vision: Since 90% of decisions made while driving are based on visual information, vision impairments can make driving much more difficult. In general, the aging eye requires more light than a younger eye. This often makes driving at night unsafe for senior drivers.
  • Reaction Time: Reacting to an emergency when you are behind the wheel of a car requires sensing, deciding and acting often within a matter of seconds. Age lengthens the time it takes the brain to react. It can put older adults at higher risk for an accident.

Overcoming Age-Related Driving Issues

In some cases, there are steps seniors can take to stay safer behind the wheel of their car:

  • Make sure your senior loved one has a yearly vision exam. This makes it easier to spot and address potential problems early.
  • Read medication labels. If your loved one takes any medication that warns of drowsiness or comes with the caution “Do not operate heavy machinery,” remind them to leave the driving to you or another family member.
  • Encourage your senior driver to leave more distance between them and the car ahead of them, so they have more time to react to unexpected issues on the road.
  • Remind your parent to minimize driving distractions, such as listening to the radio or talking on a cell phone.
  • If traffic moves too fast on main highways and freeways, advise your older family member to take side roads instead. It also helps to schedule appointments and run errands during slower traffic times.

Our final tip is to encourage your aging loved one to take a class to refresh their driving skills. These courses will provide changes in traffic laws and offer other safe driving tips for seniors.

Being a good driver means being aware of and accepting changing abilities. These simple adjustments can help you keep the older drivers in your life safe.