When Is It Time to Stop Driving?

senior driving safety

Remember that thrill of getting your first set of wheels? Okay, maybe it wasn’t actually your vehicle, and those keys had to be back home by a certain curfew, but that didn’t negate the sense of newfound freedom you felt when you got that license to drive. The whole world opened up with the turn of a key in the ignition.

After driving for the majority of your life, it probably feels like second nature. It can be easy to forget that you’re actually piloting a vehicle that weighs at least a ton, can go quite fast, and can lead to great damage and significant injuries if it collides with something. And that second nature of driving can make it tough to know when it’s time to give up the keys.

When Driving Becomes a Hazard

According to Kaiser Permanente, most people drive for seven to ten years longer than they should. During that time, they might have more fender benders, have trouble staying in their lane, hear lots of other drivers honking to get their attention, and may even lose track of navigating roads that they might be quite familiar with. While most people know that new drivers are more likely to have an accident, people may not be aware that it is older drivers – aged 70 and up – who make up the second-most likely demographic to crash their vehicle.

As we age, our vision begins to deteriorate. Our reflexes aren’t nearly as fast as they once were. Our hearing might become a problem too. That can mean that our ability to drive a vehicle is compromised. This is especially true for those who have health conditions that are related to age, such as dementia. This is borne out by research. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the odds of a fatal car accident rise between the ages of 70 and 74, and are highest among those who are 85 or older. Not only does our ability to drive decline as we age, but our bodies become much more fragile and unable to withstand the trauma of an accident, thus leading to fatalities.

How to Assess Your Driving

Giving up any sort of freedom can be tough. That’s especially true when you’re giving up car keys, as a vehicle is often a ticket to everything from running errands to going on vacation. The independence of being able to drive yourself to the doctor or the movies is something we often take for granted until we no longer have the ability to do it.

But it’s vitally important to be realistic about driving abilities as we age, not only to keep ourselves safe, but to protect others on the road as well.

When thinking about whether it’s time to stop driving, consider these questions:

·         Do you get confused by traffic signals?

·         Do you stop at green lights or at places where there is no stop sign?

·         Do you run stop signs or drive through red lights?

·         Do you feel anxious or scared when you drive?

·         Do you have difficulty merging into traffic on the interstate?

·         Are you getting lost on routes you have driven often?

·         Are you having accidents?

·         Do you find yourself driving very slowly in order to stay in the proper lane?

·         Have friends or family commented on your driving?

You should also consider giving up the keys if you have been diagnosed with certain medical conditions or suffered from medical events that could lead to impaired driving. These might include:

·         Vision or hearing difficulties

·         Strokes

·         Dementia or Alzheimer’s

·         Severe arthritis

·         Diabetes

You might also want to cease driving if you are on medications that can impair your ability to drive. In some cases, your doctor might actually request that you turn over your license while on certain medications. These might include various types of narcotics, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleeping pills. Remember this rule of thumb: Anything that makes you drowsy makes you a hazard on the road, no matter what your age is.

Assessing the Driving Skills of a Loved One

In addition to the questions listed above, there are a few others that caregivers, friends, and family members may want to keep in mind when assessing how a loved one is driving. No one wants to believe their abilities are diminishing, so it can be easy for someone to say they just had a “bad day” on the road and dismiss the problems they are having behind the wheel. When thinking about whether it’s time to have this serious discussion with your loved one, ask yourself:

·         Do they get easily distracted while driving?

·         Do they get lost when going to usual and familiar places?

·         Do they sometimes get confused about how to control the vehicle, such as putting it in reverse when they should put it in drive?

·         Do they hit curbs or park outside of the lines?

·         Do they drive at a speed that is inappropriate for the road conditions?

·         Are you finding dents and dings on the vehicle and/or structures around the home, such as the mailbox or tree near the driveway?

·         Do they seem to “freeze” or have a delayed response in heavy or fast traffic?

·         Do they confuse the brake and the gas pedals?

A final question to ask yourself is possibly the most important and telling one of all: Would you trust your loved one to drive around with children in the vehicle? If the answer is no, it’s time to have the discussion about driving.

How to Discuss Driving

There’s no doubt about it, this generally isn’t an easy conversation. Though some seniors recognize their abilities to drive are becoming impaired and they are ready to give up the keys, others will dig in and fight for their independence. Approach the situation delicately, starting with a discussion that lays out the facts of what is happening. “You have had three accidents in the past few months” or “I’ve noticed you have trouble with merging on the interstate lately” can be good ways to start the conversation. Gauge their reaction to determine if they are open to the idea of admitting there’s an issue.

This might be an ongoing discussion. To get more ideas on how to approach the issue, explore the We Need to Talk seminar created by AARP, The Hartford, and MIT Agelab.

If an elderly driver is unwilling to stop driving, consider a compromise-- guidelines or limits on driving. For instance, perhaps there is a willingness to stay off the interstate, avoid driving at night, or stay home during bad weather. Perhaps there is a willingness to wear a personal emergency alert button in the car. A medical alert device can come in very handy, as help can be reached immediately if there is an accident, medical event while driving, or disorientation that leads to getting  lost.

To get a neutral and unbiased opinion, you can request a driving evaluation. You can find this option through a physical therapy center, driving school, or state licensing agency. Contact your Department of Motor Vehicles to determine where you can find a testing facility and what you need to do to set up an appointment.

Options to Maintain Independence

If you do come to the decision to give up the keys, there are ways to make things easier. To maintain independence as much as possible, consider these options:

·         Transportation services specifically designed for elderly persons

·         Family and friends who are happy to schedule regular trips to the store, doctors appointments, etc

·         Mass transit options (if available)

·         Shopping online

·         Getting meals, groceries, medications, etc delivered

·         Taking a “day out” from time to time with a group of friends, one of whom is the “designated driver” for the group

·         Using services like Uber or Lyft

A personal button alarm system for seniors is a very good idea. Remember, the system is not just to detect falls at home. It can be used on the go, and it can be used for things other than a medical emergency. Once an alert is sent, Alert1 Command Center agents stay on the line with members until the appropriate help arrives. The mobile option offers optional GPS so emergency crews can pinpoint your location.

Whether it is time to start evaluating if it’s time to stop driving or not, a medical alert pendant, bracelet, or wristwatch is just one more way to help promote independence and keep you safe.