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Signs That Driving Habits Should Change

On average, men outlive their driving careers by 7 years, and women by 10 years, which means that for many of us, there will be a time when we will no longer be able to get behind the wheel.

CAA has compiled a list of warning signs that changes in driving habits are warranted (many of which are self-evident), as well as information on a doctor’s role in managing this transition. It’s very important – for everyone on the road – that we are realistic about our ability to drive safely, and make changes to our driving habits before we cause harm to ourselves or others.

Signs that driving skills are declining

Normal aging does affect driving, but there isn’t a set age when a person is no longer safe behind the wheel. In fact, most people can safely drive well into their retirement years. Here are some things to look for that may be clues that driving habits need to change:

  • Has the driver been issued two or more traffic tickets or warnings in the past two years? Tickets can predict a greater risk for collision.
  • Has the driver been involved in two or more collisions or “near-misses” in the past two years? Rear-end crashes, parking lot fender-benders and side collisions while turning across traffic rank as the most common mishaps for drivers with diminishing skills, depth perception or reaction time.
  • Does the driver have difficulty working the brake and gas pedals? Drivers who lift their legs to move from the accelerator to the brake, rather than keeping a heel on the floor and pressing with the toes, may have waning leg strength.
  • Does the driver sometimes miss stop signs and other traffic signals? Perhaps the driver is inattentive or cannot spot the signs in a crowded, constantly moving visual field.
  • Does the driver weave between or straddle lanes? Signaling incorrectly or not at all when changing lanes can be particularly dangerous, especially if the driver fails to check mirrors or blind spots.
  • Do other drivers honk or pass frequently, even when the traffic stream is moving relatively slowly? This may indicate difficulty keeping pace with fast-changing conditions.
  • Does the driver get lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places? This could indicate problems with working memory or early cognitive decline.

If you or your loved one exhibits one or more of the above warning signs, consider taking a comprehensive driving evaluation, and be sure to talk to a doctor, to help identify and address any weaknesses. These warnings don’t necessarily mean that it’s necessary to stop driving, but it is likely important to at least adjust driving habits. Know your limits – and drive within them.

Your Doctor’s Role

Doctors are regularly called upon to evaluate medical fitness to drive. Often, this happens when a patient arrives with a driver fitness form from the provincial or territorial licensing authority, but it can also happen at the request of a concerned family member or loved one. Because driving is a daily activity for many Canadians, the potential effects of any medical condition on driving capability must be considered by Canadian doctors, regardless of the age of their patient. For instance, a person with newly diagnosed diabetes should receive counselling on the Canadian Diabetes Association’s recommendations for drivers. In some jurisdictions there are legislated requirements for physicians to report patients with medical conditions that make it unsafe for them to drive.

Every doctor who examines a patient to determine fitness to drive must always consider both the interests of the patient and the welfare of the community that will be exposed to the patient’s driving. In the course of the examination, the physician will not only look for physical disabilities but will also assess the patient’s mental and emotional fitness to drive safely. A single major impairment or multiple minor functional defects may make it unsafe for the person to drive. CMA notes that adaptations to the vehicle or changes in driving habits allow compensation for most physical limitations, but in most cases, cognitive limitations cannot be mitigated through such measures.

Most importantly, a doctor will want to provide the best care and advice possible, keeping the patient’s safety – and the safety of other drivers – in mind.

Dementia

Dementia is not a specific disease, but rather a word used to describe symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain. Alzheimer’s is the most common form.

If a person has dementia, they will eventually become unable to drive, due to challenges with reaction time and decision-making, although a diagnosis of dementia doesn’t necessarily mean that someone needs to stop driving right away. However, if diagnosed with early-stage dementia, it’s imperative that driving ability is discussed with a doctor to determine whether a person can continue driving.

Warning signs that dementia is affecting driving skills:

  • Forgetting how to locate familiar places.
  • Failing to observe traffic signs and signals.
  • Becoming angry or confused while driving.
  • Often hitting curbs while driving.
  • Forgetting your destination during a trip.

If you or your loved one has experienced any of these warning signs, driving must cease until you have consulted your doctor.

The Ottawa Hospital has developed a toolkit called the Driving and Dementia Toolkit for Patients and Caregivers.

Canadian Medical Association, CMA Driver’s Guide Determining Medical Fitness to Operate Motor Vehicles, 8th Ed, Section 1, Ottawa: Canadian Medical Association, 2012, modified and used with the permission of CMA; recognition to Dr. Dow. CMA does not assume any responsibility for liability arising from any error in or omission from the use of any information contained in these sections. Permission to photocopy this section should be sought from Access Copyright, One Yonge St, Suite 800, Toronto, ON M5E 1E5, T: (416) 868-1620, E: permissions@accesscopyright.ca.

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