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When is it time to hang up your car keys?

Slowed reactions due to aging, medication and injury or disability can all impact on a person’s ability to drive safely

Occupational Therapist Louisa King

When occupational therapist Louisa King talks to groups of seniors, there is one topic they don’t want to discuss – when it’s time to hang up their car keys.

‘A lot of people think, “It's my licence. I'm not giving it up no matter what”, but driving isn't a right. It's actually a privilege.’

In her role as Principal Occupational Therapist and Driver Assessor at Community Occupational Therapy, Louisa evaluates the safety of drivers who have been referred to her by VicRoads. Whilst the referral can be because of a disability or illness, it can also be due to safety concerns that are related to aging.

‘Obviously as people get older, reaction times can slow down due to a variety of reasons,’ Louisa says.

‘You'll commonly hear about the people that have driven into a shop front window. So, what's normally happened is that they've put their foot on what they think is the brake but it’s actually the accelerator. Whereas normally people would be able to quickly go, “Oops”, and fix it, because their reactions have slowed, they tend to just go harder on the accelerator thinking their foot is actually on the brake.’

Underlying medical conditions that become more common as people age can also impact on people’s driving safety.

‘Maybe they've had a small Trans Ischaemic Attack (stroke) that they didn't know about, which has caused some issues with proprioception in the foot – so they don’t know where their foot is in space.’

Diabetes can also cause issues with sensation in the feet impacting foot and pedal position.

Of course, age alone does not make someone a bad driver and injury, or disability does not necessarily mean you can’t drive safely.

‘I’ve seen older drivers in their nineties drive absolutely perfectly. So, it's very variable,’ Louisa says.

Help to stay on the road

OTs can also make steering and other modifications to help people keep driving safely if they have a physical impairment. ‘For example, if they've had a stroke that's affected their right side, we can put a left foot accelerator and steering modifications in to allow for left sided driving.’

Installing bigger mirrors can overcome issues with people being unable to turn their head far enough to check their blind spot before changing lanes. Even people with medical conditions such as early-stage dementia, may still be able to drive safely close to home.

‘Some of the clients we see have a lot of trouble when they're out of their familiar area and have to process new road law and new signs and other things that are going on, whereas someone could even have dementia, but still drive to and from their shops and their doctor really safely, because that's all they do.’

Red flags can point to early cognitive changes that could impact on people’s driving, like getting lost going to a familiar place or the reaction of other drivers. If you can see people are getting mad at you, or you’re being tooted, it may be because you are not doing the right thing.

One option to stay on the road is a restricted license, with limitations that can include only driving during daytime or within a certain radius from home.

Drive safe

For people who are concerned they may have lost some of their ability to drive, Louisa suggests booking in for a lesson with a driving instructor as a great option. It can also be a refresher on ongoing road rules, and an introduction to rules that have modified over time; particularly helpful for people who might have had their driving test half a century ago.

‘I had a client yesterday who’d had a series of small strokes and he did two lessons because he'd been off the road for a while and he really appreciated it because he learned things he didn't know about, like that when stopping he needed to see the tyres of the car in front of him on the ground.

‘The other tip I give a lot of our older clients is that an occasional driver is actually a dangerous driver. You've got to drive every single day to keep those skills up. So, even if it is only to your local shops, drive every day.’

Stop signs

Most people don’t realise they have a legal responsibility to alert VicRoads to any issue that could impact on their driving, either by self-reporting or via their GP, Louisa says.

Depending on the issue, VicRoads may then require an OT, like Louisa, to conduct an assessment.

‘It depends on the diagnosis. So, if you called VicRoads and reported a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, they might ask for a neurologist report. If the neurologist says you’re fine, then no driving assessment is needed. You’ll just need a medical every year. If the neurologist has an issue, then they'll refer you to an OT to have an assessment.’

Louisa says she understands people might want to turn a blind eye to concerns about whether they are still safe to be on the road because of a fear they will lose their independence, but she urges them to consider, at what cost?

‘I know it's a horrible thing to say, but how would you feel if you did hurt someone on that road? How are you going to cope in your final years of life knowing that you've run over someone's child or that you could be done for manslaughter?’

Additionally, if you don’t report an issue to VicRoads, and you’re involved in an accident, your insurer is not obliged to cover you – even if you are not at fault, because you should not have been on the road.

Louisa also urges people to remember that there is life after driving with other transport options available. These can include a motorised scooter, family and friends, community transportExternal Link , seniors groups, and half-price and some free public transport tickets (through your Victorian Seniors CardExternal Link ).

Stay safe

  • Have regular eyesight checks.
  • Notify VicRoadsExternal Link of any diagnosis or injury that could impact your driving.
  • Drive daily to keep your skills fresh.
  • Take a driver lesson as a refresher.
  • Check out your other transport options.
  • Ensure your car has good safety features.
  • Check your medications don’t impact on your driving.
  • Keep the conversation open with your GP and family.

Note from VicRoads: In Victoria, you can report a driver if you're concerned about the person’s ability to drive safely. VicRoads will not divulge the identity of people who make a report in good faith (unless it is required by law). Other states may have confidential reporting systems too, visit Link

More resources

Visit the VicRoads websiteExternal Link Link

Find your local community transport provider through the VicTas Community transport association websiteExternal Link

Or you can contact your local councilExternal Link to find out what support they offer

Reviewed 21 November 2022