Driving Safe for Some With Alzheimer's
Frequent Monitoring Important, Experts Say
July 2, 2007 -- Many people in the early stages of dementia -- such as
Alzheimer's -- can continue to drive safely as long as they are monitored
That is the contention of a group of researchers in the United Kingdom,
whose review of the clinical evidence led them to conclude that with frequent
assessment of driving skills, the risk of accidents among older people with
dementias was acceptably low for up to three years after diagnosis.
Geriatrician Desmond O'Neill, MD, who co-wrote the analysis, tells WebMD
that mandatory screening of older drivers based on age alone is both
unnecessary and ageist.
The analysis appears in the June 20 issue of BMJ, the British medical
"Older drivers as a group are the safest drivers on the road," he
says. "The very high-profile incidents involving older drivers have led to
unwarranted prejudice against them."
Age, Autos, and Alzheimer's
The most high-profile case involved a 2003 crash in California at the Santa
Monica farmers market. Ten people died and 45 others were injured when an
86-year-old man crashed through a barricade and drove for nearly two blocks
before coming to a stop.
The driver, who had a valid license, later explained to police that he tried
to stop the car but may have hit his gas pedal instead of his brakes.
Ironically, another Santa Monica incident, occurring seven years earlier,
led to nationwide efforts to mandate license renewal testing for older
In November 1998, 15-year old Brandi Mitock was killed while crossing an
intersection by a 96-year old driver with a history of dementia, strokes, and
other health problems.
The man also had a valid driver's license but hadn't taken a road test since
he had first gotten the license in 1918, according to news reports.
Several states require older drivers to renew their licenses in person,
instead of by mail. Some states require elderly people to renew their licenses
more often than other drivers or to pass vision tests when they renew them.
In the United Kingdom, drivers are required by law to inform motor vehicle
licensing officials of a diagnosis of Alzheimer's or some other dementia.
This is not the case in most U.S. states, but a researcher who studies the
issues faced by older drivers believes it is a good idea.
Knowing When to Give Up the Keys
Dennis McCarthy, PhD, is co-director of the National Older Driver Research
and Training Center (NODRTC) at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
McCarthy says a "baseline" assessment administered by a specially
trained driving instructor should be performed immediately following a
diagnosis of Alzheimer's or other dementia, with similar assessments performed
every six months after that.
"This way you know when a person's Alzheimer's disease has affected
their driving, as it eventually will," he says. "But just because
someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer's that doesn't mean they can't drive