Safety, next steps, and alternative options

A person with Parkinson’s disease can experience symptoms such as shaking, stiffness and rigidity, and difficulty with balance and coordination. These symptoms can affect a person’s ability to drive safely.

People with Parkinson’s disease may be able to drive safely. However, over time, symptoms of the disease can worsen. This can cause a person to gradually lose the ability to drive a vehicle safely.

This article covers what symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can make it difficult to drive and when a person with Parkinson’s disease should stop driving. It also discusses how Parkinson’s disease medication can affect driving, alternative travel options, and tips for families and caregivers.

If a person is in the early stages of the disease, they may be able to drive safely. Their medications may control their symptoms well enough to ensure that they are still well-coordinated and able to react in a safe and timely manner.

As a person’s Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsen over time, they may start to lose the ability to drive a car safely.

A person with Parkinson’s disease may not be able to:

  • react quickly to a hazard
  • turn the steering wheel
  • push on the brake or gas pedal

Below are some of the symptoms that can make it difficult for a person to drive a car safely:

Tremors

Tremors are a common symptom of Parkinson’s disease.

Tremors are involuntary muscle contractions that can cause a person to jerk or shake. Parkinson’s disease tremors can affect a person’s hands and may only appear on one limb or down one side of their body.

Involuntary movements can become dangerous if a person is driving a vehicle.

Stiffness and rigidity

Stiffness and rigidity is another common symptom, present in 89% of cases of Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease can cause a person’s arms or legs to stiffen and become rigid. This stiffness can occur on both sides or just one side of a person’s body. Stiffness due to Parkinson’s disease can cause a person to experience a decreased range of motion.

If Parkinson’s disease causes stiffness that heavily impacts a person’s range of motion, this may make it difficult for them to drive a vehicle.

Lack of balance and coordination

Parkinson’s disease can also cause a person to experience poor balance and coordination. It may also make it difficult for a person to keep their balance or begin to move when they have been sitting still for a period of time.

If a person has poor balance and coordination, this can impact their ability to safely drive a car.

Cognitive impairment

Parkinson’s disease can cause a person to experience cognitive changes.

This means that the person may:

  • be easily distracted or disorganized
  • find it difficult to plan ahead
  • find it difficult to accomplish certain tasks
  • find it hard to focus in situations that divide their attention
  • feel overwhelmed when having to make choices
  • have difficulty remembering certain information
  • have difficulty finding the right words when speaking

If a person has these cognitive changes, it may seriously affect their ability to drive safely, such as not being able to react to a hazard in the road or paying attention to the actions of other vehicles.

Common Parkinson’s disease medications can also cause side effects that affect how safely a person can drive.

For example, carbidopa and levodopa (Sinemet), amantadine, dopamine agonists, and anticholinergics can cause the following side effects:

  • sleepiness
  • dizziness
  • blurred vision
  • confusion

These side effects can all make driving very dangerous.

Not every person with Parkinson’s disease will experience these side effects.

If a person does experience these side effects, they should report them to their doctor. A doctor may be able to adjust the person’s medication to help decrease these side effects.

People should stop driving if their Parkinson’s disease symptoms and medications make it unsafe to drive.

The Parkinson’s Foundation suggests that a person follows some of the following steps to determine if it is still safe for them to drive:

  • Another opinion: Ask a friend or family member for an honest opinion about their ability to drive.
  • Driving assessment: Take a driving assessment from their local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
  • Driving Rehabilitation Specialist (DRS): Ask a doctor to recommend a DRS assessment. A DRS can provide an on-road and off-road test to see how much Parkinson’s disease affects the person’s driving. A DRS can also offer driving skill improvement training to those who can still drive safely.

If a person has Parkinson’s disease but can still safely drive, they may wish to begin transitioning away from driving. A person may wish to reach out to friends or family or a Parkinson’s disease support group for help to ease the transition.

If a person with Parkinson’s disease is transitioning away from driving, they may wish to start limiting their drives to shorter trips and only drive on familiar roads.

It may also be a good idea to avoid:

  • rush-hour traffic
  • driving on roads that are often busy
  • driving in bad weather, at night, or when visibility is poor

If a person stops driving, they may need to find alternative travel options to maintain independence.

Below are some alternative travel options for people who can no longer drive.

  • Public transport: A person may be able to use local buses, subways, or trains to get around. Older adults and people with disabilities can often purchase bus passes at a reduced fee. A person should contact their local public transportation office to find out more about discounts and which routes they can take.
  • Taxes: If a person can afford it, they may wish to take a taxi for shorter journeys.
  • Family and friends: A person with Parkinson’s disease may wish to ask family members or friends to drive them to places. A person could perhaps prearrange for certain people to drive them to specific places on specific days each week.
  • Assisted living: If a person lives in an assisted living facility, it may provide transport to certain appointments. They may be required to reserve these trips in advance.
  • Shuttle services: Some communities offer specific shuttle or van services for people living with disabilities. A person may wish to check with their local government and local community center to find out more about these services.
  • Volunteer services: Some religious organizations or community-led initiatives have volunteers available to drive different community members to certain destinations.

If a person is concerned that a friend or family member’s Parkinson’s disease is affecting their driving, they may wish to observe them as they drive. By observing the person, they can get a good idea of ​​their current driving ability and whether they are safe to drive.

The NIA states that if a person cannot watch another person drive, they should look for other signs that they may no longer be safe to drive. These include:

  • the person has been in multiple crashes or has had several “near misses”
  • the person’s car displays a number of new dents
  • The person has had several traffic tickets or warnings in the last few years
  • the person’s car insurance premiums have increased due to driving issues
  • there have been comments from neighbors or friends about the person’s driving
  • the person says they have anxiety about driving, particularly at night

If a person believes that a friend or loved one should stop driving due to Parkinson’s disease, it is important to approach the subject sensitively.

They should explain their reasoning and perhaps explain alternative transport options that may be available to the individual to help them transition away from driving more easily.

If a person has Parkinson’s disease and requires specific support, a number of organizations may be able to help. Below are some organizations that a person with Parkinson’s disease may want to contact:

  • Parkinson’s Foundation:The Parkinson’s Foundation has a helpline that features specialists who can help people with Parkinson’s disease, caregivers, and healthcare providers navigate every aspect of Parkinson’s disease. The Helpline is available at (800) 4PD-INFO (473-4636) or via email at helpline@parkinson.org.
  • American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA): The APDA website contains useful information and resources for people living with Parkinson’s disease. They also have over 1,400 support groups across the United States.
  • Parkinson’s and Movement Disorder (PMD) Alliance: The PMD Alliance provides virtual and in-person support groups for people with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders. They can also offer support to care partners.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder. It affects the nervous system and causes symptoms including shaking, stiffness, difficulty walking, coordination problems, and cognitive impairment.

Some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can also affect a person’s ability to drive a car safely.

Certain Parkinson’s disease medications can cause sleepiness, dizziness, blurred vision, and confusion. These symptoms may also impact a person’s ability to drive safely.

If a person’s Parkinson’s disease makes it unsafe to drive, then they should stop immediately. They may wish to ask a friend for an opinion on their driving or take a driving assessment from their local DMV.

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