Driving with dementia: the dangers of denial.

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As family members, we are desperate to believe that dad’s driving is absolutely fine.  We try to convince ourselves that even with dementia, dad presents no hazard to himself or others and we even trick ourselves into believing it.  When a precipitating, oftentimes, climactic event occurs, our best-case-scenario dream becomes a nightmare.

My family was one of the lucky ones – those in the very small minority whose loved ones come to their own decision to retire their automobile keys.  My dad decided that he wasn’t comfortable driving anymore and stopped driving cold turkey.  Boy did we dodge a bullet!  I know, however, that more often than not- male or female – your loved one will be very resistant to any suggestion that their driving experience come to an end.  And it’s not always a case of dementia causing the questionable driving behavior.  Declining hearing and/or vision, combined with slow response times, can render just about anyone a hazard to humanity behind the wheel.

Be supportive, not argumentative.

Whatever you do, acknowledge that this function of your loved one’s life equates to independence – going wherever you please, whenever you please.  Imagine being told that you have to give up that freedom.  How would you feel?  Very carefully consider what steps will be most successful in addressing this issue with your loved one.

  • Make serious efforts to preserve the dignity and pride of the person while protecting the safety of that person and others;
  • Involve your loved one in the discussion; by doing so you emphasize that person’s ability to be a part of the solution which might bring about a more successful outcome;
  • Be realistic and honest with yourselves.  Don’t take comfort in the fact that the person with dementia “only drives to the store and back” or “only drives in her immediate residential area.”  Many accidents occur during the shortest and most mundane trips;
  • If you’re the primary point person for your loved one, enlist the help of other family members and friends, and/or a respected professional – such as a doctor or lawyer – to support you in your efforts.

What does the law have to say on the matter?

Just about every state in the Nation has driving restrictions for those who exhibit questionable driving aptitude.  I’m about to provide some links to laws that are applicable in the State of Washington but I’m certain that similar statutes exist in most states.  In Washington Sate, the Revised Code of Washington, RCW 46.20.207 states that the Department of Licensing can cancel any license wherein the driver is not competent to operate a motor vehicle under RCW 46.20.031 which addresses a person’s inability to safely operate a vehicle due to physical or mental disability or disease.  RCW 46.20.305 further details the reexamination process for those who fall within this category.  This is not a laughing matter to be sure.  Not only is your loved one at risk, but everyone within sight of his vehicle is unknowingly being subjected to your loved one’s dangerous driving.  Imagine how you will feel if an innocent person dies or becomes disabled as a result of your family member’s driving.  And there are liability issues to consider.

Who shares liability in these types of circumstances?

The Western and Central Washington State Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association has much to say on this matter.  You can request and receive, free of charge, their booklet, At the Crossroads: Family Conversations about Alzheimer’s Disease, Dementia & Driving.  In a separate article, Seattle elder law attorney, Janet L. Smith outlines our legal obligations as family members of those who drive with dementia.  Are you letting your wife or husband drive with diminished abilities?  According to this article by Ms. Smith, because Washington is a community property state, the marital community is generally responsible for any injury or damage caused by either spouse.  This article further states that an attorney-in-fact, acting under a Durable Power of Attorney, opens himself up for possible legal action should the impaired driver cause significant damage to another.  In both of these circumstances you simply need to ask yourself if you feel comfortable enough to take that risk, knowing that the driver is unfit but taking no action to prevent that person from driving.  It all boils down to a matter of conscience, and a matter of moral obligation.  Only you can decide what type of risks you’re willing to take and/or the degree of responsibility you’re willing to shoulder.

Consider the frequency and severity of these signs and symptoms of dementia-impaired driving:

  • inability to locate familiar places;
  • failure to observe traffic signs, perhaps because they may no longer understand what they mean;
  • making slow or poor decisions in traffic, such as slow response times, and making incorrect responses to traffic conditions;
  • driving at an inappropriate speed – usually too slow;
  • becoming angry or confused while driving.

Soft ways to eliminate driving opportunities.

  • Arrange an independent driving evaluation through the local AARP or your State Department of Licensing;
  • With the help of your loved one, assign driving responsibilities to family members, neighbors, and church friends;
  • Take your loved one on errands that she needs fulfilled and make a date of it – grabbing a cup of tea somewhere, or combining the errand with a lunch opportunity;
  • Plan alternative transportation such as public transportation organizations similar to those found in Washington State: Access VansCatholic Community Services, National Volunteer Caregiving Network, and Senior Services, to name a few.

Drastic ways to eliminate driving opportunities that should only be employed as a last resort:

  • gain control over access to the car keys;
  • disable the car by removing the distributor cap, a battery cable, or the starter wire;
  • arrange to sell or donate the car;
  • secure a letter from a physician declaring the person incapable of safe operation of a vehicle and present it to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles/Department of Licensing.

I can not emphasize enough how important it is to make sure that you’ve assembled a team of well-intended friends and family members to fill in the transportation gaps.  Helping Mom and Dad, or your spouse, maintain an acceptable level of independence will go a long way toward softening the blow of losing the ability to get behind the wheel on their own.

8 thoughts on “Driving with dementia: the dangers of denial.

    DUI of Dementia | Baby Boomers and More said:
    March 11, 2014 at 10:18 am

    […] my article: Driving with dementia: the dangers of denial I offer a few suggestions on how to take the keys away – or give up ones own keys – […]


    […] the attached article, Driving with dementia: the dangers of denial,  I go into detail about the hazards inherent with driving under the influence of dementia, so I […]


    […] source of tips on how to handle this very familiar problem.  I address this issue in my article: Driving with dementia: the dangers of denial.  Although dementia is usually one of the most talked about reasons for taking away […]


    […] my article, Driving with Dementia: the dangers of denial, linked here, I address this dilemma that many families encounter.  I hope both of these articles […]


    Morris Amato said:
    December 1, 2011 at 5:31 am

    Much like Don, our circumstances involved a non-injury accident which led us to retreiving the keys from my mother-in-law, who lived with us and whose dementia was just starting to deteriorate quickly. It has been a year now and her condition, like many, goes through drastic swings, but we made the right decision. However, even when she drifts into that space that we all know, the one consistent things she mentions is her car. She asks for her keys and wants to give them to us (we have had them all along). In her good days she was a very independent woman and this had a a great impact on her. We don’t regret the decision. It was the right one, but it breaks our hearts from time to time. Thank you for your wonderful blog.


      boomer98053 said:
      December 1, 2011 at 9:29 am

      Thank you, Morris for your input. What you say rings true in my father’s situation as well. At his suggestion, after he had not been driving for a couple years, we donated his vehicle to Habitat for Humanity. It was his idea. For the next couple years he would make comments, “If I still had my car I’d be able to drive to Fred Meyer’s.” “If I still had my car I could go to Roosters (his favorite coffee shop) for lunch.” It didn’t matter that he hadn’t driven his vehicle for quite awhile before that time. It was the actual releasing of the vehicle – he couldn’t see it any more in his assigned parking space at the facility – that kept resonating with him. I was glad that he had a) made the decision to stop driving; and b) decided to donate the 1993 Mercury Sable to a worthy organization; but the emotional effects still lingered so I was very sorry for the sadness he felt. We should never take our independence for granted. A loss of that right is a heavy loss to be sure.


    Don said:
    November 30, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Thank you for this very important information. My spouse’s dementia created a definitive moment that ended her driving: a non-injury accident which totaled her car. It was a difficult conversation to inform her we would not be getting her a new car. There was anger, sadness and disbelief. Her loss of freedom and independence was devastating to her. We went to the location where her car was towed to retrieve her personal effects. Her saying goodbye to her beloved Prius was a sad event.


      boomer98053 said:
      November 30, 2011 at 4:29 pm

      I know that many families struggle with this issue. I’ve heard one acquaintance tell me that he lets his wife, who has dementia, drive but he’s in the passenger side front seat to make sure nothing goes wrong. The unfortunate thing with that statement is how false it is. If the wife suddenly accelerates, how will he slow down the car from his position in the vehicle? If she turns the wrong way on a one-way street – again, how will he effectively intervene? If a child runs out in front of her in their neighborhood, how will he avoid this potential tragedy? You get the idea – there are so many scenarios where just being in the car to observe the loved one’s driving is not preventative enough. I’m glad that no one was injured in your situation. Thanks for your candor and your comment.


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