When should elderly drivers stop driving?

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University want to help caretakers learn when it's time for loved ones to hang up their keys to keep them safe.

Few activities are more representative of complete and total independence than driving. When you need to get away from it all, you simply grab your keys, hop in the car, and go.

So when you're the caretaker of a loved one who's aging, taking away those keys can be a difficult decision, not wanting to end something that virtually everyone enjoys. Hard though it may be, new research out of Florida Atlantic University's College of Nursing is helping family members determine when their elderly loved ones need to put their vehicles in park for good for the safety of themselves and their fellow motorists.

While age-related decline is a part of life for just about everyone, how old someone is shouldn't be the deciding factor for judging competency, warned Assistant Professor Lisa Kirk Wiese, the study's lead author at FAU's Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing.

"It is important to note that it's not a person's chronological age itself that puts the older driver at increased risk for driving accidents," Wiese cautioned, "but rather the changes in functionality and skills needed for safe driving."

Memorization key component of driving safely

Chief among these changes is memorization, the researchers said. Many of us take the ritual nature of going for a drive for granted, but the task requires the mind to recall the step-by-step process, such as turning the ignition, buckling up, putting the vehicle in gear, and using the acceleration and brake pedals interchangeably on an as-needed basis. But when someone has a condition like dementia – specifically Alzheimer's Disease, the most common type – knowledge of the basics recedes due to cognitive impairment. Previous studies have found that people with Alzheimer's make 62% more mistakes behind the wheel than individuals who haven't been diagnosed with the mind-altering condition.

How can caretakers determine when these mistakes are not mere aberrations but signs of what's to come? FAU investigators say it should be left to the experts.

"The task of identifying and helping older adults who are unaware of decline in cognition impacting road safety can be overwhelming for family members," Wiese advised. "Nurses who care for older adults in public health settings can play a vital role in understanding and identifying the cognitive mechanisms that inhibit effective driving and help to identify older adults who may be at risk for unsafe driving, and who would benefit from a driving evaluation."

More specifically, Wiese recommended having older drivers tested through a formal patient assessment and medical review, accompanied by a road test with a certified driving expert who can ride along with them.

Falling frequency tied to accident risk

In addition to psychological changes, people with AD are at an increased risk of falling. Based on a study published in the medical journal Age and Aging, Alzheimer's patients are three times more likely to experience slip-and-fall accidents than those without the condition, the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation reported.

When falls are commonplace, the chances of motor vehicle accidents increase. According to a separate study that was done in partnership with the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus, individuals who fall frequently have a 40% higher likelihood of being involved in a car accident than those who are steady on their feet. The reason for this, based on the researchers' findings, stems from limited functionality in the limbs and joints, which are essential to peak driving performance.

Roughly 50% of Americans registered to drive today are 65 years of age or older, according to FAU's numbers. By 2046, the ratio is expected to climb to 77%. On a per mile basis, seniors have the highest accident rate than any other age group, more than even teenagers who have less experience.