Encouraging doctors to tell potentially unsafe drivers to stay in the passenger's seat can translate to safer roads, but have the undesirable side-effect of increasing rates of depression in those who can no longer drive, according to a study published in the "New England Journal of Medicine."

When doctors in Ontario, Canada warned patients with issues such as dementia, alcoholism, and sleep disorders that their condition might impair their ability to drive, the risk of these patients having an automobile accident decreased by 45 percent—but their chances of developing severe depression rose by 27 percent.

The physicians' honesty also appeared to impact their relationship with their patients. Twenty-nine percent of people who had been told not to drive stopped visiting that doctor as frequently.

The Senior Driver Debate

Seniors are often singled out as one of the more dangerous driving demographics.

Elders 80 and above rank number two on the list of age groups most at risk for having a fatal accident. Sixteen percent of all traffic deaths in 2009 occurred in people 65 and older, according to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In August, a 100-year-old man made headlines when he backed into 11 people, nine of them children, near a school in Los Angeles, California. The news dredged up the undying debate of whether or not older drivers should be subjected to more rigorous evaluation when it comes to their ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.

Help Seniors Adjust if you Take Away the Keys

Caregivers constantly ask: "How do I know if my parent should stop driving?" and "How can I take away the keys?"

Aging adults can experience a variety of different issues that may interfere with their ability to be a safe driver. Dementia, arthritis, vision problems, hearing loss and medications are just a few things that can make it more hazardous for an elder to operate a vehicle.

Caregivers of seniors who still drive should remain on alert for these and other physical and cognitive concerns that can render an elder incapable of being safe while operating a motor vehicle.

There's no doubt that keeping impaired drivers off the road is safer overall, but the Canadian study highlights the importance of helping a loved one cope with the loss of freedom that accompanies no longer being able to drive.

It's important to approach the topic with sensitivity and calm. Surrendering the right to drive is a huge step for a senior and is likely to be met with resistance of some kind.

If you succeed in convincing a loved one to surrender their keys, the problem doesn't end there. In order to keep the senior safe and happy, you need to follow-up and make sure they're acclimating to their new reality without a car.

In addition to keeping your eye out for symptoms of depression and other mental or emotional problems, some practical things you can do to help your loved one adjust include:

  • Present alternative forms of transportation for them to use (i.e. public transport, senior shuttle services).
  • Consider seeking the services of a driving rehabilitation specialist. These therapists can identify the issues impairing your loved one's ability to drive and may be able to help come up with effective ways for a senior to stay safe while in the driver's seat.