Dementia is a very serious condition that affects 30% of people over the age of 85, and 10% of people over age 65 in Australia (2). It is estimated that there are approximately 250 newly diagnosed cases of dementia every day, which is projected to increase to 318 new cases per day by 2025, and 650 new cases per day by 2056 (2).
Dementia is a disease and has a significant affect on people, families, and their communities. Dementia impacts many capacities, including but not limited to: thinking, memory, learning, attention, intellect, insight, and judgement, and changes can happen at different rates for each person affected. These changes, that happen in the brain, affect how people with dementia are able to function, and their ability to do activities the same way they may have been used to doing in the past.
Driving is a very serious, complex, and risky activity that can have extreme consequences. For this reason, transport authorities have determined a set of high standards for functioning that need to be met by every individual who holds a license. When someone has dementia, they are likely to loose the ability to meet these standards over time. Unfortunately, this has no relation to driving experience, and it also doesn’t mean they were not once an excellent driver. It means that the medical condition, dementia, has caused permanent changes to the capacities they need to drive safely. Due to the permanent and degenerative nature of these changes, lessons are not appropriate for people with dementia, as they are not going to improve the person’s symptoms.
In Australia, a person is legally obligated to inform the local transport authority that they have been diagnosed with dementia. If you fail to report your condition to the transport authority, your doctor will notify the department for you. It is extremely important to address the issue of driving immediately upon diagnosis. In some cases your doctor may feel it is necessary to refer you for an assessment of your driving, and in other cases your doctor may advise you to cease driving without further assessment.
Image from: Austroads. (2016). Assessing Fitness to drive: commercial and private vehicle drivers (5th Ed). Sydney: Austroads Inc.
If someone is referred for a driving assessment immediately upon diagnosis of dementia, the person may be able to keep his or her license for a little while. However, ongoing driving is only possible if symptoms have not progressed, and they still meet the safety standards required to hold a license. However, as soon as there are changes that affect someone’s safety on the road, or the safety of others, it is time to stop driving. This can be extremely difficult for a person with dementia, as driving has often been a source of freedom and independence over their lifetime. Furthermore, dementia can often also lead to reduced awareness of one’s own deficits, which means that someone with dementia may not understand or even see the danger of their mistakes. Some people do not recognise mistakes at all. For this reason, it is crucial that family members offer emotional support and transport assistance to lessen the impact of ceasing driving. In Australia, there are also other transport options that have been subsidised to facilitate access to the community for those who cannot drive a car.
For persons with dementia, ceasing driving is often a necessary but difficult transition. Due to the dangerous and high-risk nature of driving, safety is of utmost importance and has to be prioritised for all persons involved.
If you notice changes in a family member’s memory, thinking, attention, judgement, or awareness, the safest option is to stop driving and see a doctor immediately, until you have further information about why these changes are happening, and/or have been advised that you are safe to drive.
For more information about dementia, please visit https://www.dementia.org.au/information/about-dementia.
(1) Austroads. (2016). Assessing Fitness to drive: commercial and private vehicle drivers (5th Ed). Sydney: Austroads Inc.
(2) The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling NATSEM (2016) Economic Cost of Dementia in Australia 2016-2056