Do Driver’s Tests Provide an Accurate Picture of a Senior’s Driving Ability?

The issue of seniors and driving is coming more to the forefront with the aging of the baby boomers. Families worry whether their older loved ones are safe behind the wheel—and when a senior is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other memory loss, family are especially concerned. Much research is underway to understand the decline in driving ability as people age. This is not a simple subject.

Researchers at the Rhode Island Hospital’s Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders Center wanted to find out whether standardized road tests can determine whether older adults should continue to drive. The researchers installed cameras in the cars of 103 older adults, some of whom had mild cognitive impairment. They wanted to observe the drivers “in their natural state—in their own vehicles going about their daily routines.” They found that some cases, seniors were actually better drivers than their driver’s test would suggest.

Lead author Jennifer Davis, PhD, reports, “Many older people don’t like to drive far from their homes; they like to stay in their comfort zone. They don’t drive many miles, and they often avoid driving at night. Taking them out of that comfort zone and placing them in an environment of formal test-taking—one with carries with it potentially life-altering consequences (loss of their driver’s license)—may lead to significant anxiety, which in itself could impair their driving abilities.”

The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society [optional link to: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2012.04206.x/abstract], showed that people with cognitive impairment made more errors both on the driving test and in day-to-day driving. However, the errors made during normal driving were less serious. The researchers say this study suggests that mild cognitive impairment shouldn’t result in an automatic revocation of a person’s driver’s license. Said Davis, “Rather, it should emphasize the importance of monitoring an older person’s driving so that he or she can safely maintain their mobility and independence for as long as possible.” She added, “It’s natural to worry about older adults behind the wheel, even more so if they appear to have memory or cognitive issues, or have been formally diagnosed as such. But many of the people in our study drove safely.”

Copyright © AgeWise, 2013 reporting on study from Rhode Island Hospital’s Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders Center