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Parkinson’s and Driving

debbiericker's picture

Parkinson’s disease can significantly impair driving skills.  It can cause tremors, slowed movement and impaired balance. Even worse it can cause cognitive impairment.  All these issues can contribute to unsafe driving.  Ultimately every individual with Parkinson’s will have to give up driving. In the US, driving is strongly associated with a person’s ego - we value our ability to go where we want, when we want.  While most older adults give up driving when they are no longer safe some are very resistant.  Too many times after completing a driving assessment and determining the driver was no longer safe they have argued they made mistakes during the driving assessment because “I was not driving my car” or denied the mistakes altogether. Riding in the car with individuals during my assessment has given me a different perspective of safe drivers.  Since I sit in the back seat and take notes I have come to value the driving instructors I work with, that they have the ability to keep us safe and accident free, while allowing the driver to demonstrate their normal driving habits.

How Symptoms Affect Driving

The symptoms of Parkinson’s can vary from patient to patient- they can range from mild to severe. But even in mild cases, common symptoms such as shaking in the arms, hands, or legs; impaired balance; and slowed physical and mental responses can affect driving skills.

Tremors- hands or feet Poor control of gear shift and pedals
Rigidity Jerky movements while steering
Slowed motor control Poor braking and reaction time
Postural instability Poor awareness, planning, scanning
Medication side effects Drowsiness and other side effects

How You Can Help

You need to discuss the resident's driving with other family members as well as their physician.  You may not be able to convince the resident they are no longer safe to drive, so it is important to enlist the help of others.  Hiring an occupational therapist to provide a driving assessment, and letting the occupational therapist advise the resident that it is time to retire from driving may be a better option than you making that determination. Sometimes people are able to drive, for a period of time, with self-restrictions:

  • Short trips
  • Driving during the day to avoid rush hour traffic
  • Driving only on sunny, clear days
  • Driving only to familiar places

If your resident refuses to stop driving, in spite of unsafe driving skills, you may need to take further action.  You can take the car keys away, but if you aren’t able to locate every set, the resident may still sneak. You have the option of disabling the car, but often I’ve seen the driver call a local mechanic and get the car fixed.  So if you choose to disable the car, you need to write a note to the mechanic, and tape it to the engine of the car with a note stating to call you before they fix the car. If a family member has power of attorney, you can take the car away or sell the car.  You also have the option of calling the local Department of Motors Vehicles, and reporting your concerns.  In many states you can report anonymously, but I’ve heard many stories of sympathetic DMV employees letting the individual know who reported them, even though they asked to be anonymous.


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