Most families are reluctant to have the uncomfortable driving conversation with parents as they get older. But the harsh reality is that if we don’t have “the talk” with Mom and Dad about when it’s time to take away their keys, they may put themselves or others at risk on the road.
When to take away keys from elderly drivers is a highly controversial topic. It makes sense; driving signifies freedom and independence — and no one wants to take away those privileges. But when lack of driving skill puts an elderly person’s life and others’ lives at risk, it’s time to take away the keys. It’s knowing when this time comes that can be the challenge.
Senior Drivers on the Road
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of being injured or killed in a motor vehicle crash increases as you age, and today there is an almost 34% increase of licensed older drivers on the road than there was in 1999. The reason for this is two-fold:
- There is an exponentially large aging population.
- People are living longer.
The National HIghway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also reports that older drivers are more likely to die in intersection accidents and that the task of making a left turn becomes more challenging with age.
But the time to take away the keys is different for everyone. Some 60-year-olds suffer from poor vision or cognitive decline and some 90-year-olds are fine on the road. The only way to determine whether someone is fit to drive is to test them and their driving ability.
Should Seniors Drive and Be Required to Take Driving Tests?
Should seniors drive? Most certainly if they don’t pose a risk on the road. However, many think there should be more tests to determine whether they are fit.
State driving laws vary. Some require an annual eye exam and driving tests, and others require only an eye exam every five years. Many require people to renew in person starting at age 65, rather than online, which allows licensing officials to look for signs of health conditions that could affect driving ability; but it’s argued there are flaws with this process as things can be missed. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety does a good job outlining the license renewal procedures for senior drivers.
Do Your Own Test
It’s a good idea to do your own test in addition to the state driving tests. Here are a few you can do to give yourself a gut check as to whether your elderly parent should be driving:
Ride along: Be the passenger in your elderly parent’s car on a regular basis. Check to see how your Mom or Dad controls the vehicle, stays within the lane, handles turns, stays within the speed limit and drives overall. Remember that it can be a fun outing, rather than an interrogation. By going on an outing or trip to the store, you can quietly make your observations without nagging or distracting.
Check the vehicle: Check the car for dents and scrapes for a good indication of how your elderly parent is driving.
Visit the physician: This is simple. Ask your elderly parents’ physician whether they think it’s a good idea whether they should still drive. If their physician said they shouldn’t be on the road, this can present a good case to your parent to take away the keys.
Who Helps Determine Whether Seniors Should Stop Driving?
Many argue that seniors should be required to take more tests. It’s not popular politically to have seniors take more driving tests, but it’s all about the safety on the road. A National Safety Council survey showed that Americans believe the following people should determine whether an elderly driver is no longer fit to drive:
- Doctor/caretaker: 29%
- Family: 25%
- DMV or government: 23%
Viewpoints are obviously split, making the debacle even more challenging. Often a combination of people ultimately build the case for taking the keys away from aging Mom or Dad.
When Should Seniors Stop Driving?
So when is the right time to stop mom or dad from driving and take away the keys? Many believe that the family of an elderly driver is usually in the best position to assess the senior’s condition and ability to drive. Physicians also play an active role.
Here are some abilities and conditions to consider:
- Vision: Does Mom or Dad suffer from cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy? Does their physician have concerns with vision problems, limitations or concerns?
- Physical ability: Driving takes dexterity and coordination. Mom and Dad need to have strength in arms, legs and feet to control the vehicle. Also keep in mind that people shrink, so you may need to adjust the seat and add pillows to sit on, if necessary.
- Physical activity: If your aging parents are no longer exercising, you need to consider whether they can drive. The body atrophies without physical activity to build or maintain strength, agility or coordination. Even a daily walk can help to get them away from the television.
- Diseases: Diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia can affect judgement and driving ability. They can become disoriented and probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel. If your parent has been diagnosed with these diseases, consult their physician. Diabetics also need to be cleared to drive by their physician.
- Medications: Prescription drugs have side affects that can cause drowsiness or affect a person’s reaction time. Consult Mom or Dad’s physician to see whether their medications put them at risk.
According to the American Academy of Neurology, indicators of decreased driving ability may include:
- A recent accident or near misses
- Aggressive or impulsive personality changes
- Changes in vision or hearing
- Chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, glaucoma, respiratory illness
- Driving under the influence or increased alcohol consumption
- Taking medications that cause drowsiness
- Traffic citations
Here are more steps to take when evaluating whether your older loved one should still be driving:
- Check with the doctor: The primary care physician can determine whether your loved one is both physically and mentally capable to drive. The doctor can also “prescribe” that someone stop driving, which can help with the uncomfortable delivery.
- Check your state laws: There are many regulations and restrictions on older drivers, such as eye exams at increased intervals after a certain age, or neurological tests. This knowledge also helps you make sure you are following the law to avoid uncomfortable liability issues if something does happen. For information on your state, visit: Older Drivers: Licensing Renewal Provisions.
- Arrange for alternate transportation: Learn from Driving Miss Daisy — sometimes a chauffeur, bus route, train, subway or taxi is an option for your loved one. Contacting a social worker might help to find out resources available to seniors in your area.
- Consult a driving rehabilitation expert: An expert can assess senior vision, hearing, cognition and motor skills, and even make an on-road assessment. For a certified specialist, visit: AAA Foundation for Driver Safety.
- Talk to an Attorney: It never hurts to get an idea of potential financial and/or legal consequences in the instance of a crash or injury.
- Practice Empathy: Remember to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes — don’t minimize feelings and make sure you listen to his or her frustrations. It’s important to get your family together for an intervention to provide a cohesive message of concern to your senior loved one.
Making the Decision to Take Away the Keys
No one wants to give up his or her freedom — and driving is one of the most powerful symbols of independence. Taking away the keys from a senior loved one can be an emotional and uncomfortable situation.
Mom and Dad were the ones who were pained to hand over their keys to you when you were a teenager, so having to worry about them driving is a major role reversal that can be devastating. But it’s all part of the senior care of our parents.
Taking away someone’s freedom on the road is challenging, but it’s better than some of the consequences that can occur if you don’t.