Developing dementia can make it difficult and potentially unsafe for a person to drive. In the United States, a person may lose their driving license if it is not safe for them to continue driving.

Driving requires a person to think clearly, remain alert, and make important decisions quickly.

A person who has received an early diagnosis of dementia may be able to continue driving safely for some time.

However, dementia is a progressive condition, meaning that it worsens over time. A person’s cognitive ability will decline, which can make it harder to drive safely.

This article explains what will happen to a person’s driving license if they receive a dementia diagnosis. It also looks at how dementia affects driving, how to approach the topic, and alternative travel methods.

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According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, people who have early stage or mild dementia may still be able to drive. Those with moderate or severe dementia should not drive, and their license may become invalid.

In some states, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will automatically revoke a person’s license if they receive a diagnosis of moderate to severe dementia.

Other states may give the person the chance to take a behind-the-wheel driver re-examination to ensure that it is still safe for them to be driving.

Driving safely requires various skills, which include:

  • focus and attention
  • problem-solving skills
  • reaction skills
  • memory
  • decision-making and judgment
  • visuospatial skills, which means that a person is able to keep the correct speed and position on the road

Dementia causes cognitive impairment that often worsens over time. As a result, a person’s ability to practice the above skills and safely manage a motor vehicle can also decline.

When a person receives a diagnosis of dementia, they or a caregiver should speak with the doctor about activities such as driving.

Some states also require people to report the diagnosis to the DMV. At this point, a person may need to take the behind-the-wheel driving re-examination. However, this can vary from state to state.

The laws surrounding dementia and driving can vary from state to state.

Some states require a doctor to send a report to the DMV after diagnosing a person with dementia. The person in question may then need to take the behind-the-wheel re-examination to ensure that they are still safe to drive.

If they pass, they may need to retake the test regularly, such as every 6 months. This is due to the progressive nature of dementia.

Other states may revoke a person’s license immediately after a diagnosis of moderate to severe dementia.

A person or caregiver should contact their state’s DMV for information on the laws surrounding driving and dementia.

Caregivers can look for warning signs that a person with dementia may no longer be able to drive safely. These can include:

  • two or more traffic tickets
  • increased insurance premiums
  • new dents or scratches on the car
  • recommendations from a doctor that a person needs to modify their driving habits
  • comments about their driving from neighbors or friends
  • speeding
  • sudden lane changes
  • confusion between the brake and accelerator pedals
  • changes in vision or hearing abilities

In some cases, a person may be ready or willing to give up driving without much convincing.

However, taking away a person’s ability to drive can result in emotional challenges. The loss of driving may represent a progression in their condition, a loss of freedom, or other issues that can be hard to accept.

When it becomes apparent that a person should stop driving, a caregiver may wish to try:

  • having a conversation with the person about their concerns
  • asking the doctor to talk with the person about their driving
  • taking the person for a driving assessment

The National Institute on Aging suggests that a caregiver could consider hiding the keys to the car if the person has moderate to severe dementia and may pose a threat to their own safety or that of others if they were to drive.

Depending on where a person lives, they may have easy access to public transportation in the form of taxis, buses, or trains.

Those who live in more rural areas may have to rely on alternative transportation options. These may include:

  • family and friends with a car
  • drive share services
  • hospital or clinic transportation services
  • veteran services, which may provide transportation for veterans with dementia
  • senior transportation services

When traveling, caregivers may wish to consider providing the person with a personal safety bag. According to the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center, a travel kit should include all of the following items:

  • clearly visible identification
  • fare card or money required to travel and get home
  • the address of where they are going
  • a list of emergency numbers
  • their prescription medications
  • a cell phone
  • their eyeglasses, if necessary
  • a change of clothes
  • a water bottle or snacks
  • a jacket
  • a book, puzzle, or another easy-to-carry activity to pass time

Dementia can make it unsafe for a person to continue to drive, but that does not necessarily mean that they will automatically lose their license.

If a person has early stage dementia, they may be able to continue driving. However, as the condition progresses, it may become more difficult for them to drive.

Some states may require a person to give up their license at the time of diagnosis or take a behind-the-wheel re-examination.

Caregivers should consider the emotional challenges surrounding a person’s loss of ability to drive. It can represent a loss of freedom and be a sign that their dementia is progressing.