Dealing With Impaired Driving Skills In Aging Family Members


Two weeks ago, Elder Law Issues reintroduced to its readers a discussion on driving skills for the aging driver. We suggested continuing our discussion by introducing strategies to deal with the impaired driver.

We often hear stories like these: A client whose father gets lost driving in his neighborhood has a neighbor let the air out of her dad’s tires. Another client removes the distributor cap from his aunt’s car. A friend finally resorted to putting a large chain and padlock around his father’s steering wheel after a serious but non-injury accident.

Such measures can stop the impaired driver from driving that disabled car. A judge’s order in a guardianship forbidding the ward to drive may also work. Before disabling a car or seeking guardianship when disabilities worsen, however, a more appropriate first strategy is simply better understanding and greater sensitivity to the issue of driving.

For most people today “transportation” means the personal automobile. When one loses the ability to drive, one’s life often changes dramatically. At the March 2002 Maricopa Association of Governments’ conference, “Senior Mobility in the 21st Century: What Can We Do to Prepare?” keynote speaker Dr. Joseph Coughlin, Director of the Age Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that seniors will find a way to make ‘priority trips’ — to get groceries and go to doctor’s appointments. But, Dr. Coughlin emphasized, “the trips that really make them happy and healthy — getting a haircut when they need it, visiting friends, going out to eat, window shopping — it’s that personal independence of going where you want, when you want, how you want that makes transportation so important to keeping seniors healthy.”

For a closer look at Dr. Coughlin’s insights into older drivers’ concerns see his AARP publication, “Transportation and Older Persons: Perceptions and Preferences.”

Another key strategy is to identify physical disabilities impairing driving as distinct from cognitive impairments. Where possible, utilize rehabilitation programs for physical impairments. The Traffic Safety Center at UC Berkeley cites results of a General Motors study on older drivers which found that 30% of stroke victims with physical disabilities could regain the skills necessary to drive safely.

The difficulties posed by impaired seniors who continue to drive are complex and challenging. We will discuss more transportation strategies in a future Elder Law Issues.

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