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Driving & Common Medical Conditions

Driving is a complex, fast-paced activity. In fact, a typical driver makes 20 decisions per mile, with less than half a second to respond to changes in the roadway. Increasing age brings a greater likelihood of having at least one medical condition that could impair safe driving.

Some of the most common medical conditions known to impair safe driving are listed below. If you know an older driver who has one or more of these conditions, click to learn how driving ability might be affected and what steps can be taken to address the situation.

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. A driver with dementia will eventually become unable to drive, due to challenges with reaction time and decision-making. However, a diagnosis of dementia doesn’t necessarily mean that a person should stop driving right away. Ensure that the driver speaks to a doctor early and often about safe driving abilities.

Warning signs that could mean dementia is affecting a person’s driving ability and it is time to stop:

  • Forgetting how to locate familiar places.
  • Failing to observe traffic signs and signals.
  • Becoming angry or confused while driving.
  • Often hitting curbs while driving.
  • Confusing the brake and gas pedals.
  • Forgetting his or her destination during a trip.

If an older driver you know has experienced any of these warning signs, ensure that the driver consults a doctor. The doctor might write a referral to an occupational therapy driver rehabilitation specialist for an evaluation to help determine fitness to drive ability.

Get a brochure on Alzheimer’s >> 

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Arthritis is a medical condition that causes pain, swelling and stiffness of the body. There are different types of arthritis, but most result in pain and swelling of the joints – places where two bones connect (e.g., wrist, elbow or knee).

Arthritis can limit ability to move shoulders, hands and neck – movements necessary to be able to grasp and turn the steering wheel while driving, apply the brake and gas pedals, buckle the safety belt and turn to check blind spots when merging into traffic or changing lanes. Also having arthritis in the knees or hips can make it difficult to get in and out of a car.

People can drive safely with arthritis as long as they work with their doctors to manage the condition with safe driving in mind. Drivers should ask about treatments that can help with pain, swelling and soreness without making them sleepy, which can make it difficult to drive safely. A doctor may suggest seeing an occupational therapy driver rehabilitation specialist to determine if, and how, arthritis is affecting driving ability.

Drivers with arthritis can use the following tips to help them drive more safely and comfortably:

  • Consider using larger, angled rear and side view mirrors to help minimize blind spots and reduce physical demands on head and neck flexibility.
  • Some steering wheel covers may reduce demands on hand and wrist strength needed to grip and handle the wheel.
  • A variety of low-cost key grips or holders provide multiple grasping positions to help people with arthritis easily turn door and ignition keys.

Get a brochure on arthritis >> 

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Diabetes is a disease in which the body cannot properly maintain blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels. If not properly treated, diabetes may cause nerve damage in the hands, legs and feet. In severe cases, diabetes can lead to blindness, heart disease, stroke or even amputation of a limb.

Other symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes can limit driving ability, including including:

  • Becoming sleepy or dizzy.
  • Developing blurred vision.
  • Losing consciousness.
  • Having a seizure.

If you know an older driver who has diabetes and has experienced one or more of these symptoms, ensure that the person works closely with a doctor to find a proper treatment plan that will help maintain driving ability.

Here are a few quick tips for drivers with diabetes:

  • Do not drive if the blood glucose level becomes too low (hypoglycemia). Wait until the level has returned to the target range determined by a doctor.
  • Keep a blood glucose testing kit and plenty of snacks (including a quick-acting source of sugar like juice or hard candy) close by in case of signs of a low blood glucose level. Drivers will need to pull over and check blood glucose level.
  • High blood glucose levels (hyperglycemia) also may affect driving in extreme cases. Encourage the driver to talk to a doctor if there is a history of very high glucose levels, to determine when such levels could affect ability to be a safe driver.

Get a brochure on diabetes >> 

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain stops, at which point brain cells begin to die. Having a stroke can cause a person to be unable to speak, see, think clearly or control physical movements. Stroke also may cause temporary or permanent weakness or paralysis on one side of the body.

Driving after a stroke can be dangerous, depending on how much damage was done and the overall condition after initial recovery.

People who get behind the wheel after having had a stroke might:

  • Experience trouble turning the steering wheel or applying the brake.
  • Become easily frustrated or confused while driving.
  • Drift across lane markings into other lanes.
  • Become overwhelmed by the traffic around them.

Fortunately, most stroke survivors can return to independent, safe driving. However, it’s difficult to determine when they can return to driving until the full extent of the stroke is known. After initial treatment, a doctor can provide useful information about rehabilitation, which may help them get back on the road safely.

Warning signs and symptoms of stroke typically come on suddenly and include:

  • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Confusion and trouble speaking or understanding.
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Trouble walking, dizziness and loss of balance or coordination.
  • Severe headache with no known cause.

Get a brochure on strokes >> 

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Sleep apnea is a common medical condition that causes breathing to stop or to become very shallow during sleep. When sleep is interrupted by the condition, people can become drowsy during the day, making which severely limits safe driving ability.

People who have sleep apnea are at higher risk for car crashes. However, with correct treatment, they likely can drive safely. Lifestyle changes, dental mouthpieces, medical breathing devices and special surgeries are commonly used to treat sleep apnea. Medications are not typically used to treat this medical condition. It is critical that someone with sleep apnea fully use the treatment provided by a doctor, because treatment offers the best hope of being able to continue safe, independent driving.

Drivers with sleep apnea can follow these tips:

  • Don’t drive if not being treated. Talk with a doctor to determine how to treat sleep apnea without compromising safe driving ability.
  • When driving, a person needs to be fully alert. Having someone else in the car can help make sure the driver doesn’t fall asleep. Drivers with sleep apnea should do this until they are sure their sleep apnea treatment is successful.
  • If very tired or falling asleep while at work or at home, a person with sleep apnea should not drive, because it is unsafe. A driver doesn’t have to fall asleep to have a crash – inattentiveness can cause it to happen, too.

Get a brochure on sleep apnea>> 

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Parkinson’s disease is a disorder that affects the nervous system and muscle movement. It causes a person’s hands, arms and legs to shake, even when feeling relaxed. People with the disorder may also have poor balance and coordination, as well as a slowed ability to move. Driving can be unsafe, because they may not be able to react quickly to a road hazard, turn the steering wheel or use gas or brake pedals correctly. There is no known cure for Parkinson’s disease. Older drivers in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease can still drive safely, if they follow doctor’s instructions to control symptoms. Common treatment options include medication, surgical therapy, general lifestyle changes like getting rest and exercise, physical therapy, support groups and occupational therapy.

If you know someone with Parkinson’s disease, share these tips:

  • A person with Parkinson’s disease should talk to a doctor about treatment options that could help control symptoms and ask about the effect medications may have on the ability to drive safely.
  • Muscle strength can be maintained by staying active and getting plenty of exercise. These physical fitness techniques can help keep a driver safely behind the wheel.
  • A doctor also can refer a person with Parkinson’s disease to an occupational therapy driver rehabilitation specialist who can provide on- and off-road tests to see if, and how, Parkinson’s is affecting a person’s driving ability. If a person’s condition allows for safe driving, special training to improve skills may be available.

Get a brochure on Parkinson’s disease >>

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration