Seventy-eight percent of Americans 70 and older had driver's licenses in 2008, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That's up from 73 percent in 1997, a trend expected to continue as baby boomers age.
Several skills, specifically vision, response time, and neuromuscular control, worsen with age. It's also clear that driving skills can deteriorate as cognitive abilities—memory, language, perception, reasoning, and thinking—decline. People with mild dementia are higher-risk drivers, but as many as 76 percent are still able to pass a driving test and drive safely, according to a report in a recent online issue of the journal Neurology. Drivers with dementia may not know when it's time to restrict or stop driving, and they are unlikely to benefit from retraining or vehicle modification. The challenge for families and medical experts is to identify unsafe drivers without restricting those who drive safely.
In April 2010, the American Academy of Neurology issued guidelines to help doctors decide when a patient with dementia should stop driving. The guidelines also offer a few indicators of decreased driving ability: a crash in the past year to five years, a traffic citation in the past two to three years, or an aggressive or impulsive personality. Other ailments that can impede driving include glaucoma, angina, arthritis, respiratory illness, and neurologic conditions such as Parkinson's disease.
To avoid a tragedy, family and caregivers should discuss a loved one's recent driving history and health, and solicit observations about driving behaviors. The holidays are a great time to get together to discuss a senior's driving ability and agree on the next steps. It's also a good time to go for a drive with your parent and see whether you'd feel comfortable putting your little ones in the backseat.