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Unsafe driving warning signs


As seniors age, it can be difficult to tell when driving habits stray into dangerous territory. Changes in driving skill can have several causes, including cognitive and physical changes from age or injury, and drug interactions. This article discusses what to look for when it comes to seniors and driving and then describes some simple and clear warning signs that a driver is unsafe. 

What is unsafe driving and how do you spot it?

Unsafe driving is any behavior that puts a driver, passenger, or others at risk. Unsafe driving by seniors can have many causes, from medication to physical and cognitive changes. The most important factor in assessing a senior’s driving abilities is a dramatic change in driving behavior.

Sudden shifts in the way someone behaves on the road, drives in traffic, or follows a route can signal trouble. Warning signs will be different for each person: just as each driver has their own way of driving, the changes from their regular driving style will be unique as well. Warning signs may come in the form of driving behaviors, physical signs, cognitive signs, and external events.

Driving behaviors

Any of the following driving behaviors can be warning signs of unsafe driving:

  • Trouble parking. Hitting curbs, turning the wheels the wrong way, or parking too far from the curb might signal cognitive or physical problems.
  • Mistakes with judging space. This can include difficulty parking, but also more serious issues like being unable to judge safe distances for turning or how much time there is to turn.
  • Driving too slowly. If other drivers are often honking or if a person  drives much slower than the speed limit, this may be a sign that they are making up for slowed reaction time, loss of vision, or other changes.
  • Starting or stopping unpredictably. Braking too soon, too late, or at the wrong time can be dangerous to surrounding vehicles. Speeding up too quickly or too soon can also cause accidents.
  • Trouble merging or remaining in the correct lane. If a person experiences difficulty in changing lanes, exiting or entering the freeway, or staying in one lane, this could be a sign of trouble.

Physical signs

Any of the following physical changes can be warning signs of unsafe driving:

  • Changes in vision. If you know that a person’s vision has changed, their driving may change as well. Older drivers may not be able to see as clearly or as far and wide. Driving at night may also be a challenge. 
  • Changes in overall strength. Driving a two-ton vehicle does take some strength. If a person has lost strength due to illness, injury, or other factors, this might affect their ability to use a car.
  • Loss of hand or arm strength. Gripping a steering wheel takes a certain amount of strength as well, as does turning the wheel and shifting gears. 
  • Leg strength changes. Pressing a gas or brake pedal, not to mention getting in and out of a car, might present problems over time. 
  • Hearing problems. If a person is unable to hear ambulances, horns honked to alert them to danger, or other signals, their driving can be significantly affected. 

Cognitive signs

While mistakes can and do happen to everyone, if any of the following cognitive changes occur, they can be warning signs of unsafe driving:

  • Getting lost. If a person loses their way going somewhere they drive all the time, this may be a sign of cognitive changes. 
  • Confusing the gas and brake pedals. If a person mistakes the gas pedal for the brake pedal, or vice versa, this could be a serious sign that cognitive problems have affected driving ability.
  • Missing signals. If a person fails to notice a light change, especially in city traffic, this could be a danger to others. 
  • Being easily distracted. As we age, our ability to cope with distractions while performing difficult  tasks decreases. If distractions become overwhelming, this could lead to dangerous incidents.
  • Mixing signals. In addition to confusing the gas and brake pedals, some drivers with cognitive impairments can confuse left and right or red and green light signals. 
  • Responding slowly. As we age, our reaction time slows down, which can cause dangerous situations in busy traffic conditions. 

External events

Any of the following things happening can be warning signs of unsafe driving:

  • Insurance rate change. If a person’s insurance rate has gone up, this may be a result of traffic tickets or minor accidents that you are not aware of. 
  • Tickets in the mail. If there are suddenly tickets appearing on the doorstep of a previously good driver, take notice.
  • Doctor or pharmacist’s advice. If a person’s  doctor or pharmacist says that potential drug interactions could affect driving ability, be on the lookout. 
  • Friends or family have had close scrapes. If a person  has had another passenger in the car during a close call or traffic violation, they may have witnessed the reasons for the problem and can offer insight. 

Related information

Arranging for and conducting a formal driving assessment

Curtailing unsafe driving habits

Discussing driving with an older adult

Factors that contribute to unsafe driving

Getting help with an unsafe driver

Modifying driving habits of older adults

Physically limiting vehicle access for unsafe drivers

Reviewing driving regulations and legal risks

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