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10 Warning Signs That Seniors May Be Unsafe on the Road

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Sometimes the signs are subtle. Other times, they come blazing to attention. Julia remembers her first warning sign when her mother got lost going to the dentist.

“She was gone for three hours and never made it to her appointment. Later, we would ride the backroads to the store. Then she started clocking 60 mph in a 30 mph zone. She eventually gave up the keys, but she wasn’t happy about it.”

Julia was smart to accompany her mother to get first-hand evidence of her mother’s changing driving abilities. It’s important to collect the facts before making any recommendations about continued driving. Here are some signs that further investigation could be needed:

  1. Those mysterious dents. A fender bender can happen to anyone. However, if an older adult can’t seem to explain what happened or you notice multiple instances of damage, further investigation may be needed to evaluate if there has been a change in the senior’s driving abilities.

  2. Trouble turning to see when backing up. The issues of aging could compromise mobility and, in turn, certain important movements needed to drive safely, like looking over the shoulder. Fortunately, newer vehicles are offering more affordable options such as back-up cameras and other assistive technologies that could help older adults compensate for some of these issues of aging.

  3. Confusing the gas and brake pedals. You’ve seen the headlines: “Senior driver goes through the garage door after confusing gas pedal for brake.” Dementia can lead to confusion, which could put an older driver and anyone in his or her path in harm’s way. If a senior is getting confused about how his or her vehicle operates, it could be time to give up the car keys.

  4. Increased irritation and agitation when driving. Poor health or chronic pain from conditions such as arthritis can trigger increased irritation and agitation. That irritation and agitation could lead to poor judgment on the road.

  5. Bad calls on left-hand turns. Turning left can be tricky and dangerous for older adults who may have experienced a decline in cognitive abilities needed to make safe judgments while driving. According to driving expert Elin Schold Davis, many accidents involving seniors occur where there is an unprotected left turn (no turning arrow). An unsafe left turn could lead to a serious crash and life-changing injuries.

  6. Parking gone awry. Difficulty parking, including parallel parking, could cause damage to an older adult’s vehicle as well as those vehicles around it. Watch for signs that an individual is having problems parking or backing up.

  7. Difficulty staying within the lanes. Ever spotted someone zigzagging along the road? If it’s an older adult, it could be a sign that fatigue or vision problems are making it difficult to stay the course.

  8. Delayed reaction and response time. Safe driving depends on quick reaction times. Issues of aging can slow those response times to create a situation where an older adult may cause an accident or be unable to respond quickly enough to prevent a crash.

  9. Driving the wrong speed. Like Julia’s mother, driving too fast for the speed limit or conditions of the road are indicators that a driver’s judgment may be impaired. Driving too slowly could be just as dangerous and also a sign that something could be amiss.

  10. Riding the brake. Riding the brake could be a sign that a driver no longer has confidence in his or her skills. A foot constantly on a brake also is hard on a vehicle. It could be time to investigate further if a senior is riding the brakes.

Seeing one of these signs might not mean a senior’s driving days are over. Get to the root of the problem. Consider a comprehensive driving evaluation by an occupational therapist or explore potential assistive technologies to help keep your older loved one on the road longer.

Last revised: April 20, 2016

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. September 16, 2019 at 3:48 am | Posted by Cleo Lynch

    Do you know of someone who might be able to present such a talk at our local library?


  2. July 19, 2016 at 12:35 pm | Posted by lisa b

    My mother, 79, is still trying to get me to let her drive. She uses the fact that she's never had a ticket, or accident within the past several years. When she drives, she blasts her CD and already has very little hearing and very poor reflexes. If an emergency vehicle approached or she needed to swerve out of the way of another vehicle, it would be a disaster. She also drives too slowly and rides the brake. I have insisted she not drive, and she lives with me, so getting to the correct key would be very hard for her to do. My problem, with my mother and father who is worse off), is that NONE of their many doctors (even the neuro who diagnosed their alz/dementia) will tell her not to drive. They even agree with her that it is good that she's not gotten tickets!! I thought we could look to a physician to back up our (my family's) position, but they all sit there mute. It is unbelievable!


  3. June 18, 2016 at 7:35 am | Posted by sharon macdougall

    Is there a test the DMV can perform to determine the quality of a Senior's driving?


  4. June 3, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Posted by Judy

    You might add to the list, being asleep at the wheel or mesmerized by the road. Riding with my husband, that would happen (3 times). I took him up to the DMV and they took his license and gave him an identification card. I couldn't live with myself if he caused an accident. It's one thing if you hurt yourself but to hurt innocent bystanders, quite another. Blessings


  5. June 2, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Posted by Susan

    My mom used to back out of the driveway without checking around When I mentioned that it would be a good idea to check first, she would just say .... " a ... oh ... oh well, it's okay " and slowly take off down the street. It was a little bit like the cartoon Mr. Magoo, where he couldn't see too good... and he was always 'okay', but all were skidding a crashing into things behind him. Luckily no calamitites on her part and was content to have us drive her places soon after.


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