When Should Elders Stop Driving?
For many older people, and their loved ones, determining when they are no longer safe on the road is a difficult and heart wrenching process — but ignoring the issue can be dangerous.
According to a recent study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers 65 and over are more likely to get in traffic accidents than younger drivers. And those 85 and older log a fatality rate nearly four times higher than that for teens. On the flip side, older drivers cause fewer pedestrian and motorist deaths and are more likely to follow safety rules such as wearing seatbelts and not drinking and driving.
So when does an older driver — or a concerned family member or friend — know when it’s time to turn in the keys?
Monitor Changes That May Affect Driving Ability
Age alone is a poor predictor of driving skills. But for most people, age-related changes in vision, physical fitness, and reflexes creep in over the years and can hamper the ability to drive safely. Keep tabs on the following areas and ask yourself whether they inhibit driving ability.
Changes in vision and hearing. A loss of visual acuity can make it harder for drivers to see essential traffic signs, lane lines, and other drivers and pedestrians. Conditions common for older eyes — cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration — make it harder for drivers to see, and may also limit peripheral vision. A sensitivity to light at night, or night vision, can make the glare of oncoming headlights dangerous. And the loss of hearing can mean usual signals used to alert drivers, such as horns and sirens, go unheeded.
Limitations in physical fitness. A loss of muscle strength and flexibility can make it more difficult to steer, maneuver, grip the steering wheel, and pivot the head to check for traffic in the blind spot before changing lanes.
Slowed reflexes. Slower reflexes mean it may take a longer time for a driver to react to traffic signals, unexpected behavior in pedestrians and other motorists, and to gauge appropriate speeds.
Side effects of medication. People age 65 and older consume more prescription and over-the-counter medicines than any other age group. Taken alone or interacting with one another, medications may cause drowsiness or confusion and make it difficult to focus. Many also have the unexpected side effect of lowering tolerance for alcohol, which can notoriously affect driving skills.
General health conditions. Physical and mental conditions common to the older population, from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s disease, can also affect a driver’s agility and judgment on the road.
Warning Signs of Driving Problems
It is often difficult to notice and regulate our own behavior. But it is usually preferable if an older driver notices his or her own diminished driving skills and takes action to improve or curtail driving voluntarily rather than being urged or directed to do so by another person.
If you are a driver over age 60, pay attention to whether you are having driving difficulties that may signal some signposts for concern, including:
- receiving an increased number of tickets and warnings for traffic violations
- frequently asking passengers for help in navigating traffic
- becoming lost, especially on routes you have traveled in the past
- bumping into other cars while parking, or
- becoming easily angry, tense, or frustrated while driving.
How to Stay on the Road Longer
A growing number of older people are able to remain good drivers into advanced ages. In many cases, older drivers can stay on the road longer by taking advantage of programs and services available to help make that possible.
Driver refresher courses. Spending some time reviewing the rules of the road and getting behind the wheel with a trained instructor in the passenger’s seat can reinforce safe driving practices. The AARP sponsors Driver Safety Courses nationwide, searchable by ZIP code (for more information visit the AARP website, at www.aarp.org, click “Family,” and then “Driver Safety Program”). And many local Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) branches also offer refresher courses, often referred to as Mature Driver Improvement Programs. Some private driving schools also offer such courses.
License limitations. The DMVs in all states will issue restricted licenses, which may be particularly useful for older drivers. The most common restriction requires the driver to wear glasses or contact lenses while behind the wheel.
Other restrictions include:
- no freeway driving
- adding an additional right side mirror to the vehicle
- no nighttime driving
- restricted driving during certain times of day — for example, no driving during rush hour traffic
- using adequate support to ensure proper driving position
- driving only in particular areas, and
- wearing bioptic telescopic lenses, on which a telescope is mounted on the lenses to increase acuity for drivers with vision problems.
State Laws on Older Drivers
State laws specify more strict standards for older drivers and monitor older drivers more closely than younger motorists. Some of the steps states have taken to regulate how and when older drivers can renew their licenses include:
- issuing licenses with shorter renewal intervals for drivers older than a specified age, typically 65 or 70
- requiring older drivers to renew their licenses in person rather than electronically or by mail, and
- administering tests — such as vision, written, or road tests — that are not routinely required of younger drivers.
If an older driver’s continued fitness to drive is in doubt because of how he or she appeared or performed while renewing a license, a history of crashes or violations, or reports by doctors, police, or other concerned observers, state licensing agencies may require the driver to undergo physical or mental examinations or retake the standard licensing tests.
For a summary of state laws regulating how and when older drivers can renew their licenses, visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s website at www.iihs.org (click “Laws & Regs,” and then “Licensing renewal provisions for older drivers”).
Discussing the Issue With an Older Driver
If you are concerned that an older driver may be becoming dangerous on the road, sensitivity is key in broaching the subject. For many people, an end to driving signals the beginning of tangible limitations and loss of independence. It can also begin a struggle to find new ways to accomplish errands and necessities, such as post office runs and grocery shopping. And it may mean foregoing daily pleasures, such as attending a weekly painting class or card game.
Some experts suggest that you spend a week or two without driving a car before you raise the issue with the older person. For many, this is a crash course in sensitivity. You can also try to frame the issue openly, then truly listen to the older person’s expressed thoughts and feelings. For example, you might say: “Mom, I imagine that if you’re not allowed to drive anymore, you will miss your Monday night visits to Aunt Lil’s house.” You may be surprised to find out that your mother’s bigger concern is that she won’t be able to get to the grocery store for food — and you can help best by looking into community resources for home meal delivery.
Alternatives to Driving
Though transportation alternatives differ in type, cost, and availability depending on locale, there are a number of options for seniors who need to limit or stop driving.
Taxis and driver services. In many locales, senior citizens qualify for discounts or vouchers for taxi and driver services that can pick them up on call or at prearranged times.
Public transportation. Buses, trains, or trams are available in most areas. An older person who is unfamiliar with the routes used and procedures required for local public transportation can ask a friend who is a seasoned passenger on the bus or train to ride along on the first trip or two.
Shuttles. As a public accommodation, places such as churches, senior centers, retirement communities, shopping centers, health clubs, and grocery stores often offer shuttle services that will pick up passengers at designated stops or transport them home.
Senior services. The U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator (at www.eldercare.gov/Eldercare/Public/Home.asp) can provide a list of local transportation possibilities for seniors.
Friends, neighbors, and family members. People who drive are often happy to have companionship while they do errands such as stopping at the post office. And many are happy to do the good deed of picking up a quart of milk at the grocery store for an older person who can’t get there. It’s often just a matter of making the senior’s needs known.