While older drivers have less frequent accidents and fatalities compared to other age groups, they have a higher rate of both accidents and fatalities per mile driven − second only to drivers age 16 to 24. Some elderly recognize their declining skills and adjust their driving accordingly, but others present a great risk to themselves and others.
Age is not an accurate predictor of driving aptitude because some 90-year-olds are still quite fit behind the wheel while some 55-year-olds are already declining in skill. Poor eyesight, hearing loss, slower reaction times, anxiety, mental confusion, and reduced flexibility and muscle strength all hinder one’s driving performance, and these characteristics vary tremendously from one person to another.
Because you and your parents probably view driving issues differently, you need to be sensitive to how you approach the topic. For you, it’s a matter of practicality: once a person’s driving becomes risky, he/she stops driving. For your parents, driving is linked to their basic feelings of competence, independence, and inclusion in society. Having their driving ability questioned threatens much more than their means of transportation.
Suggestions to Ease into the Driving Transition Period
It’s important to acquire an objective view of your parent’s driving capabilities. Community groups sometimes offer driving assessments for the elderly. Or take several observation drives with your parent yourself: This will provide you with specific information to discuss with him/her. For warning signs to watch for, read the section on Driving Safety under "Assessing Your Parent's Level of Independence."
Try bringing up the topic indirectly, such as, “I understand your friend Sally Smith gave up driving recently. Do you think your driving ability has changed any?”
Include parents in all discussions/decisions and respect their ability to direct their own lives. They should feel in control.
Avoid criticizing or attacking your parent. Instead, express positive, supportive feelings.
Discuss ways to keep your parent driving as long as possible rather than suggesting he/she gives up driving altogether. First, address any problems that were uncovered during the driving assessment, and then encourage habits for safer driving:
Avoid night driving.
Avoid rush-hour driving.
Avoid driving in bad weather.
Limit driving to shorter distances.
Plan and learn the route in advance.
Have regular medical checkups, including hearing and vision.
Avoid amplifying vision problems with tinted windshields and windows.
Have the vehicle checked frequently (everything functioning and adjusted properly).
Exercise regularly to maintain strength and flexibility.
Make certain medications don’t interfere with alertness or ability to drive safely.
Avoid driving after drinking − even moderately.
Suggest that your parent enroll in a driving refresher course. AARP and some local hospitals offer special classes for seniors that review the rules of the road and make seniors aware of dangerous situations. As an added bonus, insurance companies usually give discounts to seniors who complete the classes.
When Other Means of Transportation Are Necessary
Word choice is very important when it’s time to set limits on your parent’s driving. Don’t say that he/she is no longer able to drive or too old to drive. Rather, he/she is no longer a safe driver.
Reason with your parents that it’s better to stop driving before it’s too late and something bad happens, such as having an accident or getting lost.
Remind them of the financial advantages of not driving. Auto insurance is expensive and increases with old age, gas is expensive, and maintaining/repairing automobiles is expensive.
Tell your parents that they don’t have to announce that they’re no longer driving. The important thing is that they arrive to their destination, not how they get there.
If your parents refuse to make changes or stop driving when it is no longer safe to drive, enlist the aid of a doctor, the insurance agent, a clergy member, an attorney, or a family friend to help. Sometimes a third person makes all the difference and can garner their cooperation.
If necessary, ask your parents if they’d prefer having the police take away their driving privileges in court. That should make them stop and think.
As a last resort, you can report unsafe driving to the local Department of Motor Vehicles and a representative will contact older adults, have them take a driving test, and revoke their licenses if necessary.
Finally, it is essential to help your parent learn what private, public, and community transportation services are available. Research transportation alternatives before you talk about giving up the car.
Good public transportation does not exist in all areas of the country, and it’s often not geared to the needs of older citizens. These systems are usually designed to carry people to locations of work or sightseeing rather than stores, residential areas (where friends live), or medical facilities. Nonetheless, here are some choices, with limitations:
If buses and subways happen to travel the right direction, they are reasonably-priced alternatives. Unfortunately, negotiating stops and schedules is often too physically and mentally demanding for seniors.
- Having a personal cell phone for calling rides makes taxis and privatized shuttles a viable option in major cities. Even though they are high-priced for most fixed incomes. The money saved by not owning a car somewhat offsets the cost of privately-run transportation, as does the Department on Aging and the Taxi Commission’s senior discount coupons for taxicabs.
Many shopping centers and hospitals provide free shuttle buses to pick up seniors and drive them back home.
Some limo services and escort businesses provide drivers to accompany your parent to appointments and errands, either in their vehicle or your parent’s.
Counties often provide transportation services for seniors − some free-of-charge and some not. Discounts or reduced-rate programs may be available.
Volunteers in local churches sometimes donate their time and vehicles to drive the elderly where they need to go. If your parent is too proud to accept help from others, offer some bartering suggestions − perhaps he/she can do something in exchange for the transportation.
Older adults who live in rural or suburban areas must rely on family and personal friends for transportation. If your parents are in that situation, you can help by gathering a team of regular drivers and organizing a driving schedule to fulfill their transportation needs.
Or you can form a carpool of like-minded friends to chauffer all your parents on certain days of the week, to different parts of town, so that the riders can plan their errands and make appointments accordingly. This can become somewhat of a social event that your parents look forward to each week.
To locate possible transportation services for senior citizens, visit the Caring.com website and enter your parent’s city, state, or zip code. You can also check with the Area Agency on Aging or Division of Aging Services (DAS) by Googling for your city or state’s local offices.
What Happens to the Car?
Once your parent agrees to no longer drive his/her car, it’s important to remove the temptation. A grandchild or needy family friend is usually glad to take the car off your parent’s hands. Likewise, many charities accept cars as tax-deductible donations. Deciding on a deserving recipient can be a positive and rewarding experience for your parent.
If the car is to remain at your parent’s house, it’s best to take the keys with you or leave them with a trusted relative or neighbor. Leaving them in the house is an open invitation to start the discussion of driving all over again.