Who's to Blame for Senior Car Accidents?

Tim Watt  |  October 12, 2012

Taking away the keys from a senior citizen is a difficult point to come to for caregivers and doctors alike, since, in American society, the ability to drive is a major contributor to independence and freedom. However a recent case of a car accident in Los Angeles involving a senior who has dementia, brings this issue into the spotlight yet again.

A Los Angeles judge recently ruled that Dr. Arthur Daigneault was not responsible for the death of William Powers, 90, who died in a car accident when his longtime partner Lorraine Sullivan, 85, a dementia patient, drove into the path of an oncoming car, NBC News reports. The victim's family thought the doctor should have done something to deem Sullivan unfit to drive, but he was ultimately found not guilty after arguing that he did not think her condition was severe enough to take away the keys.

The case brought up a valid argument among those providing Alzheimer's care: when is it appropriate to prohibit someone from driving? This question is important to consider for seniors with dementia and aging individuals in general. All cases of dementia are different and progress at different rates, so there are no hard and fast rules as to when a senior should stop driving, The Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA) reports. After all, there are plenty of healthy young adults who get in car accidents all the time, and many elderly individuals who have a perfect driving record.

Doctors and caregivers can work together to help a senior decide when their health condition makes driving too risky - that is, if they don't give up the keys on their own. Monitoring certain aspects of daily life and driving ability can also help, according to the FCA. Caregivers can observe behaviors like coordination, judging distance and space, alertness, mood swings, confusion and irritability in daily tasks - concerns in these areas may indicate that driving could be dangerous.

Caregivers may also want to look for indicators of driving ability when the senior is behind the wheel. Common warning signs that driving is no longer safe for a senior include driving too slowly, stopping in traffic for no reason or ignoring traffic signs, having difficulty with signaling and parking, drifting, or becoming lost on familiar routes. Sometimes getting a note or order from the doctor or other authority figure to stop driving helps seniors understand the seriousness of the matter, the Mayo Clinic reports. 

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