Nobody wants to lose their independence as they age. But when it comes to driving, safety should always outweigh the desire to remain independent by getting behind the wheel. Talking to your parent about hanging up the keys is not an easy conversation to have, but at some point, it may be a necessary one.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the risk of being involved in a traffic accident increases once drivers reach 70 years of age. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also finds that, on an average day, more than 700 older adults are injured in a car accident, and an additional 20 people are killed. It’s important to determine the right time for aging parents to stop driving for their and others’ safety. Here’s how to decide if your parents should hang up the keys and how to help.
Factors that affect driving ability
Certain health factors decrease a senior’s ability to drive safely. If your parent has one or more of these issues, consider their fitness to drive:
- Medical conditions: Alzheimer's disease and dementia can affect judgment, but those conditions are not the only concerns for older drivers. Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease, sleep apnea, or heart disease can cause confusion, limited mobility, dexterity issues, and fatigue.
- Medications: Some medications or drug interactions can cause drowsiness or slow a person's reaction time.
- Vision: Cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy reduce the ability to see when driving. Decreased depth perception, poor judgment of speed, difficulty seeing at night, and increased sensitivity to bright sunlight, headlights, and glare also affect senior drivers.
- Hearing: A senior’s driving ability may be hampered by the failure to hear important warning sounds.
- Flexibility and mobility: Many seniors are less physically active, which can diminish their dexterity and strength for controlling the vehicle.
- Alcohol use: The effects of aging in combination with alcohol can slow reaction time, coordination, and information processing. Alcohol mixed with certain medications can increase drowsiness and make driving even riskier.
Putting your senior’s driving skills to the test
To get a clear picture of your parent’s driving skills, ride with them at various times of day, and in different conditions. Note the following:
- Do they have the physical ability to control the car? Watch for slowed response times.
- Are they staying within the lanes? Watch for failure to use turn signals and wide turns.
- Can they scan from left to right to look for hazards?
- Are they struggling to see while driving at night? Are they confused in traffic? Take note if they hit curbs, miss turns, or get lost on familiar streets.
- Do they have trouble driving at higher speeds or on freeways? Do they drive unpredictably making abrupt lane changes or stops?
- Are there dents or scratches on the car or nearby fences, mailboxes, or garage doors?
Dreading ‘the talk’? Here are some pointers
If you’re worried that driving is a safety issue for your mom or dad, gather other family members and speak with them in a caring way. Know the discussion may be traumatic, but stress your concern that they may hurt themselves or others. Mention specific reasons and examples.
If your parent refuses to stop driving, talk to their health care providers. Seniors often accept a doctor’s recommendations to stop driving. The doctor can also send a medical status report to their State Department of Motor Vehicles Division (DMV). The DMV will do a medical review, and your parent may need to retake a driving test. (You can also request a DMV medical review without getting a doctor involved, but be aware that the DMV may let your parent know who made this request.)
It’s not a good idea to hide the keys, block usage of the car, or notify the police that your parent is an unsafe driver. It could cause a situation of mistrust, and this information could be used against them if they’re involved in an accident.
Giving up the keys doesn’t mean giving up independence
Remind your mom or dad that hanging up the keys does not mean they’ll be homebound or can no longer shop for items and services they need, when they need them. Now, more than ever, there are options for them to get around or to have their purchases delivered to their door. In addition to asking a friend or family member for a ride, they can:
- Contact the local Area Agency on Aging or Eldercare Locator for help finding services such as Dial-A-Ride, public transit, specialized mini-buses, volunteer chauffeurs or free or low-cost buses, taxi services, or carpools
- Use a smart phone or computer (or you can do it for them if they are not tech-savvy) to:
- Call on-demand ride services such as Uber or Lyft
- Use meal delivery services such as DoorDash, GrubHub, Postmates, and Uber Eats.
- Request groceries and other items delivered from local stores, fulfilled by services like Instacart, Walmart, Postmates, Shipt, and more
- Shop online for just about anything (Amazon Prime even has same-day delivery on thousands of items)
- Inquire with church or community groups about volunteers who help transport older adults
- Purchase a power chair or three-wheeled scooter to get to nearby places
No doubt, giving up the keys can be a traumatizing and depressing signal that a senior’s independence is significantly impacted. However, by offering support, understanding, and solutions, you can help your parent stay safe and retain a sense of control and autonomy as they age.