Alzheimer's: When to stop driving

If your loved one has Alzheimer's, he or she may not be safe on the road. Explain the risks — then provide other ways to get around. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Driving is a powerful symbol of competence and independence, besides being a routine part of adult life. But the focused concentration and quick reaction time needed for safe driving tends to decline with age. Alzheimer's disease accelerates this process dramatically. If you're caring for a loved one living with Alzheimer's, you may need to modify his or her driving - or stop his or her driving completely.

More than memory problems

Dimmed short-term memory makes it easy for a driver who has Alzheimer's to get lost, even in familiar surroundings. Perhaps more dangerous, however, is a decline in the ability to judge distances and predict upcoming traffic problems. A driver who has Alzheimer's may also have trouble prioritizing visual cues. An irrelevant sight, such as a dog jumping behind a fence, may distract the driver from important cues — such as brake lights or traffic signs.

When to stop driving

Driving concerns often surface during the early stages of memory changes. People with dementia are especially likely to minimize the complexity of driving and overestimate their abilities. Opinions vary on whether driving should be allowed at all after an Alzheimer's diagnosis. Research indicates that drivers with Alzheimer's disease are more likely to get into motor vehicle accidents. For some people, it may be easier to give up the wheel early on, when they can still grasp the potential hazards. On the other hand, people in the early stages of the disease may be able to safely limit their driving to short daytime trips in familiar surroundings.

If your loved one continues to drive, pay attention to warning signs of unsafe driving, such as:

  • Difficulty navigating to familiar places
  • Inappropriate lane changing
  • Confusing the brake and gas pedals
  • Failing to observe traffic signals
  • Making slow or poor decisions
  • Hitting the curb while driving
  • Driving at an inappropriate speed (often too slow)
  • Becoming angry or confused while driving

According to a report from the American Academy of Neurology, one of the more accurate predictors of driving trouble is a caregiver's assessment. If a caregiver (generally a spouse) believes that his or her relative with dementia is driving unsafe, the caregiver is likely to be correct. If you're not sure whether it's safe for your loved one to drive, ask yourself whether you feel safe riding in a vehicle driven by the person who has Alzheimer's — or if you'd feel safe having your children or others drive with that person. If the answer is no, then you know it's time for him or her to retire from driving.

Jul. 03, 2013 See more In-depth