It was a chilly, overcast afternoon when I followed my parents to their home after a holiday visit with my brother’s family. Stopping behind their car at a busy intersection, I watched my dad check his rearview mirror for me and the kids as he waited to take a left. Then, looking straight ahead, he proceeded to make his turn, straight into an oncoming car.

Remarkably, no one was hurt in the accident. But, my father, shaken up and dazed, was taken to the emergency room for evaluation. Physically, he was fine, but seeing his state of unsettling confusion, we questioned whether or not he should still be driving at all. His recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease had taken a dark detour and, like many Americans, we had to make the not-so-popular decision to take away the car keys.

In today’s fast-moving world, illness, surgery and injury can challenge whether it’s safe for an individual to take the wheel for a life of independence. It’s a hard pill to swallow for a person losing driving privileges. Nonetheless, safety for everyone on the road is paramount.

So, what do you do if questioning whether it’s still safe for a loved one to drive? You can start by being honest with the situation and considering the following factors.

Consider how health conditions may affect thought and movements

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias  

These conditions can affect a driver’s general alertness and the ability to make good decisions through clear thinking. A person’s reaction time may also slow, which can be dangerous on the road.

Stroke 

Having a stroke doesn’t automatically mean a person is banned from driving for life. However, the location and severity of a stroke can affect thinking, strength, vision, balance and mobility. On a positive note, inpatient rehabilitation can help improve many of these conditions for a greater chance of return to driving.

Brain injury  

Just as with a stroke, a brain injury can affect cognitive, physical and perceptual abilities, leading to a heightened risk for driving. Also good to know is that some states implement physical and legal driving restrictions after a traumatic brain injury, which may remain temporary or permanent.

Heart disease   

It is important for people with heart disease to consider factors such as cardiac arrhythmia and ventricular fibrillation that could unexpectedly occur while driving. Noting general weakness after major surgery or heart attack is also a key consideration. Physicians can be consulted on fitness to drive in these scenarios.

Medications  

Although they can improve quality of life, some prescriptions and over-the-counter medications present side effects that don’t blend with driving. Narcotic pain pills, antidepressants and cough medicines with codeine are just a few on the list, which can cause sleepiness, blurred vision, dizziness, slow movement and more.

Look for changes in driving patterns

Stay on the lookout for any unusual or our-of-character driving patterns your loved one presents.

Accidents  

Whether it’s a small scratch or more than a fender bender, an increase in vehicle mishaps is a sure sign that something may be wrong. The cause may be a simple fix, like changing medications. Or it could be more serious, like a worsening of dementia.

Increase in tickets 

A rise in traffic violations for things such as missed stop signs, running red lights or driving without lights can raise a red flag that something’s amiss.

Getting lost  

If a loved one is losing their way in routes that were once familiar, pay attention.

Close calls  

When a passenger in your loved one’s car, does he or she have near misses for potential accidents? This could include moving into another lane without checking it’s clear, or misinterpreting distance when turning onto a roadway in front of a car.

Slow driving  

Just as speeding is dangerous, so is slow driving. And both can get you a ticket in many states. Slow driving can cause disorganization and confusion for other drivers on the road, leading to accidents and even road rage. While slow driving can be caused by events such as distractions or a newly permitted driver, it can also be the result of declining vision, illness or confusion.

Talk to your loved one and healthcare professional

If you think it’s time for a conversation, understand that many drivers view driving as an important extension of independence. Losing it can lead to anxiety, defensiveness and depression. Before you have your talk, be prepared.

  • Provide documented examples of concerns
  • Offer realistic suggestions for alternative transportation options
  • Meet with your loved one’s healthcare team to discuss your concerns and potential causes
  • Consider having your loved one take a driving assessment
  • Know your options for rehabilitation that could safely get your loved one back on the road

When discussing your driving concerns with your loved one, know that his or her feelings are valid. Listening and offering your understanding can go a long way in having a successful intervention for safer travels down the road.

Resources:

https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/driving-safety-and-alzheimers-disease

https://www.stroke.org/en/life-after-stroke/recovery/daily-living/driving-after-stroke

https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/some-medications-and-driving-dont-mix

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8504383

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