Parkinson’s disease is a central nervous system disorder that causes certain cells in your brain to decline over time. This can affect your movement, reaction times, memory, and visual-spatial perception. In some cases, Parkinson’s can also cause dementia.
All of these challenges can interfere with a person’s ability to drive.
Yet it may take many months or years after diagnosis for Parkinson’s to interfere with activities of daily living, such as driving. It’s important to know when driving will become a concern and what you can do once it’s no longer safe to get behind the wheel.
Keep reading to learn how Parkinson’s might affect your driving, safety tips for driving with Parkinson’s, and how to determine when you should stop driving.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer for how long you can drive with Parkinson’s or how your condition is affecting your driving now. Many people can drive long after they first receive a diagnosis, while others will need to stop driving sooner.
It depends on:
- the person
- the progression of the disease
- how severe the symptoms are
Some Parkinson’s symptoms that interfere with safe driving are:
- tremors, or uncontrollable shaking, in the hands and arms
- lack of coordination
- decreased reaction times
- attention deficits
- visual impairment
- muscle stiffness
- daytime sleepiness, often due to nighttime sleeping issues
- drowsiness, dizziness, or blurred vision resulting from Parkinson’s medications
Because your symptoms may be more severe one day and less severe the next day, it may be riskier to drive than it might seem.
Even the earliest stages of Parkinson’s can affect a person’s driving. That said, people who aren’t experiencing cognitive impairments (such as vision changes or visuospatial processing issues) might be able to drive for many years.
Here are some tips to stay safe while you’re driving:
- Eliminate distractions such as your phone, the radio, and eating or drinking.
- Don’t drive when you are tired or your medication is wearing off.
- If you have reduced vision in lower-light situations, drive during the day.
- Stick to familiar routes.
- Try to drive at times when there is less traffic.
- Use good posture and have a lumbar support cushion.
- Avoid driving in difficult situations (for example, in snow, ice, or heavy rain)
- Consider taking a defensive driving course; it might get you an insurance discount, too.
- Stay active and regularly strengthen the muscles you need to drive safely.
- Stop driving as soon as you sense you might not be driving as safely.
Some people whose condition is in the early stages and whose symptoms are managed well can drive for a long time. Those with moderate or severe symptoms of Parkinson’s, on the other hand, may need to stop driving altogether.
At any stage, Parkinson’s can have a big effect on your driving, and that effect can increase over time.
There are no uniform legal guidelines that spell out when a person with Parkinson’s should stop driving, although it’s generally recommended that people with the condition be periodically evaluated.
Your doctor may suggest you see one of two kinds of specialists for evaluation or to help you cope with changes due to Parkinson’s.
This might include a driving rehabilitation specialist or an occupational therapist with special training in driving skills assessment and remediation. Either one can also tell you when it’s time to stop driving.
Red flags to be aware of
If you haven’t yet had a chance to have your driving evaluated by a specialist, here are some red flags experts say to be aware of:
- family concern
- dings on car
- getting lost
- attention or memory problems
- significant periods of time when you seem “off”
Resources that can help with your driving
- Driving rehabilitation specialists can give on- and off-road tests to check your driving, and some offer training to improve your skills. The American Occupational Therapy Association has a search tool to help you find a qualified specialist near you.
If you do need to stop driving, there are other ways to maintain your independence and quality of life.
- Reach out to family and friends for rides.
- Walk or bike.
- Use public transportation.
- Use for-hire rideshare services such as Uber, Lyft, or taxis.
- Order groceries, prescriptions, and home supplies through services such as Amazon, Instacart, Shipt, DoorDash, or others.
- Have your takeout and dry cleaning delivered.
- Reach out to local service organizations or church groups that will take you to and from medical appointments or bring you meals and groceries.
- Contact the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center’s ElderCare specialists at 866-983-3222, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST. Or email email@example.com.
- Find your local Area Agency on Aging to connect with local services (the Eldercare Locator site has a search tool).
- Call your local government offices, which may offer special rides and services for a reduced fee or a donation.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder that can affect your vision, motor function, memory, and spatial awareness. All of these effects can impair your ability to drive.
There is no clear rule about when someone with Parkinson’s should stop driving. But the condition can have a big effect on your ability to drive safely, regardless of what stage your condition is in. Have a conversation with your healthcare team about whether or when you should be evaluated.
If you do have to stop driving, you can do many things to maintain your independence, including finding other ways to get around, shop, and socialize. Local agencies on aging and other organizations exist to help get you connected with services.