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Too Old to Drive?

headlamp-2940_150This week, an elderly driver lost control of his car and crashed into a cafe on University Avenue in Palo Alto, injuring six, including himself. News reports say that the driver was trying to park, and accidentally hit the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal.

As we, or our parents, age, the question of when someone should stop driving is almost certain to come up.  While it is true that impaired driving isn’t always a factor of age, it is also true that as we age our reactions slow, our vision declines, our hearing decreases, our flexibility and strength decline, cognitive and decision making ability changes, and our judgment about our ability to drive isn’t always objective.

Sometimes people can recognize their decline and voluntarily decide to stop driving. Sometimes family and friends have to step in and question whether or not it’s safe for someone to continue to drive. It is difficult for both the older driver and the family to discuss this issue, but the literature repeatedly warns families NOT to postpone the conversation because it is difficult or unpleasant. Instead, they should focus on safety and preventing accidents.

The AARP has published a list of 10 warning signs that indicate that someone should stop driving. Here are a few of them:

  1. Getting lost in familiar places.
  2. Trouble seeing or following traffic signals.
  3. Almost crashing.
  4. Becoming distracted while driving.

According to the DMV, the per driver collision rate is lower for older drivers because they tend to restrict themselves–driving for example, only during the day, or driving more slowly than other drivers. However, when you take a look at the number of collisions that occur divided by the number of miles driven, collision rates for older drivers approach those of teen drivers! And, because older people are more fragile than teenagers (who isn’t?), they suffer more physical damage as a result of these accidents.

The California DMV has a wepage for older drivers that lists the rules for license renewal. Anyone over 70 years of age cannot renew their license by mail or online. Instead, they must come in every five years and take a written exam and an eye exam.  Also, the DMV can require you to come in and take tests if they receive reports raising questions about your ability to drive. The DMV site also includes a self-assessment test that asks a person to evaluate themselves and their safety as a driver.  This test asks you to answer with “Always,” “Sometimes” or “Never” questions like:

  • I think I’m slower than I used to be in responding to dangerous traffic situations.
  • Traffic makes me angry.
  • My thoughts wander when I’m driving.

If self-assessment doesn’t lead to someone realizing that it may be time to turn in their keys, family or friends may have to sit down and have a heart to heart chat. The Hartford insurance company, in conjunction with MIT AgeLab, has published a helpful set of suggestions for talking to someone about their driving.  Here are some ways their guide suggest families can approach this topic without being confrontational or blaming:

“Even if you were not at fault in a collision, you could be seriously injured or die.”

Regardless of who is at fault, older adults are more likely to be injured or killed because they have less capacity to endure the physical trauma of an accident. Pre-existing medical conditions may complicate recovery or result in death.

“I know you would feel terrible if someone was hurt when you were driving.”

Concern for others is often a stronger motivation than concern for self. In addition to physical harm to others, an accident can pose enormous financial and legal risks. Families should tactfully mention this possibility, but not dramatize the point.

“I’m afraid to let the grandchildren ride with you.”

An older relative may realize the degree of concern when family members will not ride with them. Protecting lives is more important than protecting feelings.

“Let’s talk with your doctor about this.”

Blame the poor health, not the driver. Preferably, find out the doctor’s opinion before suggesting this step. The doctor might not agree with the family’s assessment nor want to assume the role of determining who should drive.