After learning that two of my colleagues were involved in separate traffic accidents in December, I started thinking about my parents and others who might be challenged with a diminished driving capacity. Anyone caring for their parents may face the dilemma of knowing when it is time to “take the keys away.” When should we take steps to ensure that our parents do not drive if they cannot do so safely. The consequences of permitting a driver who is not competent to drive on the road are multiple.

First, there is a danger to the motoring public at large. Second, of course, is the danger to the elder in being involved in roadway accidents. This can become further complicated because the incapacitated driver may not be able to carry out the proper procedure when he or she is involved in an accident. For instance, he or she may not be able to gather the names of the other individuals involved, to properly report the accident to the insurance company, or to properly observe, document, and note the pertinent information regarding the accident.

This is troubling regardless of whether the accident was the elder’s fault. What evidence will not be provided to the insurance company because of the elder’s inability to collect information? What testimony and statements will the elder not be able to provide because of his or her incapacity? Will the other party or insurance company attempt to take advantage of these issues? Therefore, if there is doubt as to the elder’s ability to drive safely, it should be promptly assessed.

But how does a caretaker know if the elder’s capacity to drive is diminished?

The most definitive option is to obtain a cognitive assessment of the driver’s abilities from a neuropsychologist or related individual who can assess one’s ability to maintain divided attention and other skills needed to safely drive. However, such testing can be costly.

Another option available is to contact a private driver education company and see if the company will perform an assessment of the elder’s driving skills on a closed course setting.

In addition, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles offers driving skills tests. The BMV’s website provides a list of items which are assessed during the driving test and this list can be used to assess an elder’s ability to pass the test. The list includes the following, as derived from the Indiana BMV’s website –

1.  When taking the driving skills test, you must pay particular attention to the following situations:

  • Drive in the proper lane, obey the lane markings, look carefully, and signal properly before changing lanes
  • Leave enough distance between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead of you to avoid a collision
  • If you are overtaken and passed by another vehicle, maintain your speed and give the other vehicle room to pass safely
  • Control your speed according to posted speed limits and varying traffic conditions
  • Observe good defensive driving habits
  • Listen to instructions and observe the general flow of traffic
  • Approach intersections at the proper speed, look for other vehicles, come to a complete stop, anticipate that the light might change, and do not try to beat a yellow before it changes to red
  • Backing skills and backing correctly out of parking spaces
  • Parallel parking. Check traffic by looking in the rear view mirror, signal your intention to park, position your vehicle before backing, and move into the space smoothly and at the proper speed

2.  When taking the driving skills test, the following actions may detract from your final score:

  • Failing to use defroster or wipers when needed
  • Failing to use both hands on the wheel
  • Selecting the wrong gear
  • Failing to signal
  • Driving too slowly for conditions
  • Overrunning a crosswalk/stop line/stop sign
  • Stopping unnecessarily
  • Failing to turn into correct lane (i.e., nearest lane)
  • Failing to check blind spot
  • Slowing speed when changing lanes
  • Backing too fast
  • Leaving turn signal on after completed lane change
  • Driving too closely to the vehicle ahead or a parked vehicle

3.  When taking the driving skills test, the following actions would result in a failure:

  • Speeding
  • Failing to obey road signs or traffic laws
  • Failing to obey school zone rules
  • Failing to stop for school buses with the stop arm extended
  • Straddling marked lanes
  • Driving too close to pedestrians, bicycles or vehicles
  • Driving left of center
  • Failing to pull over and stop for emergency vehicles
  • Running off the roadway
  • Backing over the curb when parallel parking
  • Having an accident or making contact with another vehicle
  • Failing to react to hazardous driving condition
  • Failing to yield right of way
  • Turning from improper lanes
  • Failing to stop at stoplights or stop signs completely
  • Failing to follow instructions

While it can be uncomfortable to have the conversation with our parents about the need to assess their driving ability – or to ask them to relinquish a driver’s license – the consequences of allowing an impaired elder to drive are multiple. Not having the conversation can have a significant impact on the elder’s life and on the lives of those involved in accidents with the elder. No elder should be faced with the consequence of having taken a life or severely impaired another individual because of their driving incapacity. It is important to be proactive, taking steps to assist our parents in determining whether they are still able to safely drive.