When to be Concerned About a Senior Driver

Sometimes the warning signs can be subtle—here's how to recognize them.

An elderly driver with his head turned to look behind him when backing up
Most people can safely continue to drive well into old age.
lightpoet / Shutterstock

Despite a growing number of senior drivers on the road, researchers have found that they are crashing less often than just a decade ago. They’re also less likely to be injured or killed in a crash, compared with aging drivers in the past. That’s because seniors are living longer, healthier, and more active lives than ever before and car technology continues to improve.

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 old age. When people become unsafe to drive, it’s generally the result of an underlying medical condition or medications, not reaching a certain age.

Get involved by regularly checking the driving of your parent or other senior driver in your life and by looking out for these warning signs.

Be on alert for red flags.

Drivers who experience any of the following may be at increased risk for a collision or future unsafe driving.

  • The senior driver has been issued two or more traffic tickets or warnings in the past two years. Tickets can predict the greatest risk for collision.
  • The senior driver has 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.

Look for the warning signs.

When you ride with an older driver, look for signs of poor driving, but keep in mind it doesn’t necessarily mean the person should not drive. Often, poor driving behaviors can be improved with training or by addressing an underlying medical condition that affects driving. A trained medical professional can help identify treatment options that may help improve—not limit—safe driving ability.

Ask yourself:

  • Does the senior driver confuse the gas and brake pedals or have difficulty working them? 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 be signaling waning leg strength.
  • Does the senior driver seem to ignore or 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 senior 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 senior driver get lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places? This could indicate problems with working memory or early cognitive decline.

If you ride with a driver who exhibits one or more of the warning signs, consider discussing the benefits of getting a comprehensive driving assessment to help identify and address any risky driving behaviors and maximize safety.

Recognize coping mechanisms.

Most people know when their driving skills and abilities aren’t as sharp as they used to be. Two of the most common coping mechanisms used by unsafe senior drivers are:

  • Using a copilot  to help respond to situations in the driving environment. Anyone who cannot drive safely and comfortably without a copilot should not drive at all.
  • Driving too slow or too fast for conditions. Driving too slow can be a sign that the driver is compensating for slowed reflexes or reduced reaction time. Those who drive too fast may not realize how fast they are traveling or be overcompensating due to a fear of being noticed for driving too slowly.