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Retirement Weekly: How do you know when it’s time to stop driving?

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As you get older, you get wiser. So it stands to reason that seniors are smart enough to know when to stop driving.

Thankfully, many aging drivers figure out for themselves when to say when. The trick is conducting a rigorous self-assessment, stripping away emotion so that you can accurately judge whether it’s safe to continue to drive.

Look past the stereotype of the stubborn 90-year-old who refuses to cough up the car keys and you’ll find a more nuanced reality. It’s painful to admit it’s no longer prudent to drive. But the decision gets easier if the option is putting yourself—and others—at great risk of harm.  

“If they’re not cognitively impaired, many older adults do have the ability to know when to self-stop,” said David Carr, M.D., a professor of medicine and neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo.

Common indicators include getting lost while driving in familiar areas and struggling to keep up with the speed of traffic on highways, he says. Other red flags: More frequent fender benders (or worse), excessive weaving in lanes and physical ailments that inhibit vision or mobility while driving.

For Carr, a change in someone’s baseline behavior or driving skill is cause for concern. Some people are lifelong inattentive or daredevil drivers. But others morph from being cautious and observant to becoming confused and fearful whenever they take the wheel.

Another worrisome sign involves mental focus. A driver who used to chat freely with passengers may become uncharacteristically silent while navigating the car.

“A family member sometimes says, ‘I used to talk to Dad while he was driving but now he can’t be distracted because he has to concentrate on the road,’” Carr said.

If this sounds familiar, evaluate to what extent it’s safe for you to drive. Try these free online resources:

1. The American Geriatrics Society Health in Aging Foundation’s Driver Safety Questionnaire helps older adults assess their driving ability.

2. AAA’s Drivers 65 Plus provides a self-rating tool.

After completing an assessment, you control the results. If you choose, you can share the findings with your physician and discuss next steps. Such self-diagnostic tools can serve as a springboard for planning when and how to modify your driving to avoid a serious accident.

“It’s really hard to make generalizations about risk when it comes to driving,” said William Van Tassel, Ph.D., AAA’s manager of driver training. “There’s a lot of variability. Turning to a structured assessment can help.”

For seniors, vision issues tend to increase the risk. Carr notes that as we age, cataracts and glaucoma can pose problems along with our eyes’ response to glare. Older individuals who feel confident behind the wheel during the day may avoid nighttime driving.

“The ability to detect road cues can be harder at night,” Carr said. “Street lights can have halos.”

Medications also play a role. Many types of drugs reduce a driver’s alertness or pose other problems, including opioids, antipsychotics and muscle relaxants. Alcohol use further interferes with mental acuity.

“In many cases, you’re using the brain to assess whether you’re impaired,” Van Tassel said. “But with alcohol, the brain is the first thing affected,” so it’s tougher to make sound judgments after you drink.

In addition to staying away from alcohol, gain an edge by enlisting a passenger to serve as your co-pilot. If you’re unsure about your driving, invite a friend along for the ride. Just their presence can serve a valuable purpose.

“It helps to have a second pair of eyes,” Van Tassel said.  

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