When Is It Time for Senior Drivers to Stop Driving?

Elder Drivers: Is it time to stop driving?

Did you know that driving is the preferred mode of transportation? When given a choice, most would rather choose to drive their own car versus using public transportation or shared rides. Driving provides us with a sense of autonomy and freedom. While driving is always a risky activity, injuries and medical conditions – such as a stroke, heart attack, or even joint replacement - can impact our safety behind the wheel. That’s where a certified driver rehabilitation specialists (CDRS) like Susie Touchinsky can help.

Susie owns Adaptive Mobility Services in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, where she utilizes her expertise in occupational therapy and driver rehabilitation to help senior drivers find their independence, whether they’ll be getting behind the wheel, or embarking on their next road trip from the passenger’s seat.

Who is the Senior Driver?

A person is typically considered a senior driver once they reach the age of 65, While senior drivers may be at an increased risk for injury if involved in a crash, age does not dictate a driver’s ability to operate a motor vehicle. Therefore, it is more important to look at ability rather than age when it comes to the safety of senior drivers. Often, factors like vision, mobility, and cognitive ability need to be taken into consideration to determine how long a senior driver will be able to drive.

A Senior Driver Evaluation

When evaluating senior drivers, Touchinsky will meet clients at their homes. Her evaluation begins with a conversation and then simple testing to understand the driver’s vision, movement, sensation, and thinking. Then, using her adapted car, which features a passenger side brake to ensure the safety of all vehicle occupants during the evaluation, she has the driver take her to one or two familiar locations. While on the road, Susie evaluates the driver, looking for any signs that they may need adaptive driving equipment, driver training, or to cease driving altogether.

Warning Signs for Senior Drivers to Stop Driving

Touchinsky assesses the following to determine whether a driver can continue driving:

1. Change in Vision
A decline in eyesight is normal as we age. At around 40 years old, people might notice their vision getting blurrier. When this happens, you need to schedule an eye exam and find out if you need visual aids. When Touchinsky meets clients, she will assess their visual skills on the road, looking at multiple visual aspects of driving including a driver’s ability to stay within their lane, read road signs, and keep an appropriate distance from other motorists. She will also consider how a driver does in low contrast settings, like on a roadway with faded lines or in a dark parking garage.

If a driver can see with visual aids, there is no issue; however, if someone's eyesight is bad enough to the point where they cannot see the road, it may be time to stop driving.

2. Change in Thinking
Every day, Touchinsky works with some of the more than 6 million Americans who have Alzheimer's, dementia, or other forms of memory loss. If a loved one is diagnosed with one of these conditions, there may come a time when it is no longer safe to drive. Many senior drivers experiencing memory loss will find it difficult to remember the rules of the road.

These drivers may get confused about directions, forget where they’re going, or get lost. Senior drivers may also fail to remember driving fundamentals like using their turn signal or waiting their turn at an all-way stop sign. When this happens, they are liable to cause an accident. So, if someone has a diagnosis relating to their memory, it's important to evaluate their driving skills for any decline. 

3. Change in Confidence
You might remember the daunting thought of getting behind the wheel when you were a teenager. At first you learned how to shift gears, or let the car run idle as you tested out the brake. With confidence, though, driving begins to feel more natural, and is often a necessary part of people’s day-to-day lives. Whether they’re going to work or running weekly errands, drivers must have the confidence to make critical decisions on the road.

When Touchinsky is in the passenger seat, she often asks older drivers to complete certain maneuvers like changing lanes or completing an unprotected left turn. She may direct drivers to take a highway or interstate route, or ask questions like, “If this road were closed, where would you go?” When doing this, she is testing the driver’s confidence. Her goal is to see whether her clients can confidently navigate unexpected and potentially anxiety inducing situations on the road.

4. Change in Movement
Pain and injury can change the way we move and affect response time. Being able to notice and respond quickly is important for safe driving. As part of her evaluation, Touchinsky looks at how the driver moves their feet between the pedals, uses their arms to turn the wheel, and turns their head to look at a blind spot. If a driver is having difficulty with any of these tasks, Touchinsky considers adaptive equipment options like hand controls, steering devices or even special mirrors to help make driving easier and safer.  

Older Driver License Renewal

Each state has its own specific guidelines regarding driver’s license renewal for seniors. We’ll use Indiana as an example because that’s where BraunAbility is headquartered. In Indiana, once a driver reaches the age of 75, they must renew their license every 3 years. Those 85 and older must renew their license every 2 years. Most states require drivers to pass a vision test to renew a license, and some states require passing a written test too.

Upon license renewal, senior drivers may have restrictions on their license. As the name suggests, a license restriction limits what a driver can or cannot do when operating a motor vehicle. Some common license restrictions among senior drivers include:

  • No night driving.
  • No driving beyond a given mile radius of the driver’s home.
  • No interstate or highway driving.

These restrictions allow senior drivers to continue driving while keeping both themselves and other motorists safe. 

Wheelchair Vans and Adaptive Driving Controls

With age comes mobility challenges that can impact a senior’s ability to drive. Luckily, your local BraunAbility dealer is here to help. Some adaptive devices used by senior drivers may include:

  • A vehicle transfer seat: The Turny Evo is a powered seat that swivels, extends, and moves up and down to provide safety when entering and exiting a vehicle.
  • Adaptive driving controls: Certain medical conditions can affect mobility in senior drivers. In these cases, adaptive driving controls like hand controls or left foot accelerators can be added to help drivers maintain their independence on the road. 
  • An accessible van: For seniors using wheelchairs, an accessible vehicle fit with a power or manual ramp may be best. These vehicles have wheelchair securement systems so occupants can safely drive or ride in their vehicle while seated in their wheelchair.  

Senior Driver Safety: How to Support the Transition from Driver to Passenger 

Research has shown that we will all outlive our driving ability. Planning for driving retirement, just like retiring from a career, is something we should all consider. While the discussion of driver retirement is not easy, Touchinsky works every day to help drivers through their transition to the passenger’s seat. If a driver is showing signs that it might be time to transition from the driver to the passenger seat, Touchinsky will first explore whether or not the individual may benefit from rehabilitation or another intervention. 

She lets drivers know when she sees concerning habits on the road that may affect safety and even discusses  alternative transportation options so her clients can maintain independence even after they’ve hung up the car keys.

Your local mobility dealer is here to ensure safe travel for people of all ages and abilities. Each driver’s needs are unique, so you’ll want to contact your mobility dealer or find a local certified driver rehabilitation specialist to discuss any driving possibilities and adaptations that can provide independence for years to come.

Meet a CDRS: Susie Touchinsky, OTR/L CDRS

When it comes to senior drivers, the road to independence can feel like a winding one. Luckily, that’s where certified driver rehabilitation specialists like Susie Touchinsky can help. As the owner of Adaptive Mobility Services, Susie relies on over 20 years of experience in driver rehabilitation to help her clients navigate the twists and turns that come along with driving. Susie guides her clients through each stage of the driver rehabilitation process. Whether she’s evaluating a client’s medical history, assessing a driver's ability to operate a vehicle, or recommending adaptive equipment, Susie works with clients and mobility equipment dealers to support drivers on their journey to independence. 

Looking for more information on adaptive driving and rehabilitation? Check out our related articles or visit the Association for Driver rehabilitation Specialists (ADED) website and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) website to learn more.