When To Hang Up the Car Keys: Driver Safety and the Elderly

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No one wants to watch his or her independence slip away or be the one to take that independence away from a loved one, and losing the ability to drive oneself at will is a significant loss of independence. It’s not easy, but there comes a time to consider both your loved one’s safety and the safety of other’s on the road when an older driver is behind the wheel.

A recent Harvard study showed that adults aged 40-49 were the age group most likely to worry about a loved one’s driving capabilities. Of those concerned, more than 33 percent had not yet voiced their fears because of worry of a negative reaction, feeling unsure about how to bring the subject up or feeling concern about the lack of alternative transportation.

Physical limitations as a person ages

Not only do physical change to a person’s body and mind occur as he or she ages, but a body 70 years or older is at much higher risk of severe injury or death as a result of a car crash as opposed to a younger person in the same crash.

  • Vision: night vision may decline, sensitivity to daytime glare can increase, it may becomes more difficult to judge of others’ rate of speed and depth perception changes.
  • Hearing: horns, emergency vehicle sirens and other warning signals may be muffled.
  • Slower response time due to limited mobility.
  • Chronic conditions like insomnia, arthritis, heart disease, Parkinson’s may affect a person’s ability to focus attention on the road.
  • Side effects from medications may cause confusion or drowsiness.
  • Dementia and other cognitive problems can lead to confusion on the road.

How to know when it’s time

The Office of Aging lists warning signs pointing to unsafe driving in older adults. Does the driver:

  • have difficulty maintaining posted speeds
  • find it uncomfortable or intimidating to drive at night
  • show erratic movements such as abrupt lane changes, jolted acceleration or confusion between gas and brake pedals
  • get lost easily
  • feel easily taken off guard by a car or pedestrian that “wasn’t there a second ago”
  • have difficulty reading signs
  • demonstrate a failure to use turn signals or obey other rules of the road
  • drift into other lanes or hit curbs
  • incur traffic citations
  • have difficulty looking over shoulder because of limited range of movement

These are signs that driving is becoming difficult and potentially dangerous.

How you can help

Your loved one likely won’t  hand the keys over without resistance, but the suggestion is easier to hear from a family member or close friend rather than the DMV or a court order. Here are a few tips on making the conversation go a little easier:

  • Be empathetic–this is a hard transition!
  • Help figure out alternative transportation or develop a schedule so that your loved one doesn’t feel helpless or stranded.
  • Use resources like the free online course offered by AARP, The Hartford and MIT Age Lab called We Need To Talk, providing information on fostering meaningful conversation between family members about adult safety issues.
  • Seek outside expertise from a Comprehensive Driving Evaluation. Evaluations are given by an occupational therapist who can provide a clinical assessment of vision, cognition, reaction time as well as a behind-the-wheel assessment of driving skills. For a list of occupational therapists, visit the American Occupational Therapist’s website.

In general, older adults have high seatbelt usage and low citations for driving under the influence, reckless driving and speeding. So if medications or clear cognitive issues are not problematic, consider a trial of self-imposed limitations. Don’t drive at night or in bad weather conditions and avoid rush-hour traffic times.

The key is safety, for your loved one, for the drivers’ passengers and others on the road. As difficult as the conversation may be, a tragic result will be even more difficult to handle. Consider using family time together over the holidays as a time to observe and possibly talk to your loved one about retiring the car keys.

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