Elderly Drivers: When It’s Time To Hang Up The Car Keys

October 19, 2019

Are you worried about the elderly drivers in your life? If you have concerns about mom or dad getting behind the wheel, it may be time to have a conversation about hanging up the car keys and coordinating transportation assistance. But don’t throw in the towel too soon! Read on to learn how you can recognize limitations and maximize your senior’s independence.

Earning your driver’s license is considered to be a right of passage by many. It is a lifeline providing independence, mobility, convenience, even freedom. For some, not only is it a means of transportation, but it can be a passion… driving for control and the sheer pleasure of it. 

Driving is a crucial aspect in maintaining self-sufficiency for many seniors, though driving abilities naturally change as we age, making safety a higher priority when getting behind the wheel. Recognizing limitations and incorporating safe driving practices will reduce risks, allowing you to continue driving as long as possible. Realizing when capabilities are no longer suitable and it is time to hang up the car keys for good can be the biggest challenge of all.

With the growth of the Baby Boomer population, there is a steady rise of older citizens, meaning there will be more senior drivers on the road than ever before. According to a 2018 report, the number and proportion of licensed drivers 65 and older have surged in the last decade. From 2006 to 2016, there was an increase of 38%, or 41.7 million drivers. 

Despite the stereotype that the elderly are a particular hazard on the road, data has shown this not to be the case. Statistics show crash rates per mile driven are highest for the youngest drivers (ages 16-19), though they do increase steadily for seniors 70-74, and even more by 85 and older. The risk is highest to the older driver themselves, mainly due to their increased susceptibility to injury and medical complications.  

Age-related and cognitive challenges such as slower motor reflexes, changes in vision, hearing loss, or declining health conditions can make driving a dangerous proposition. Everyone ages differently, making it discretionary when you or a loved one should stop driving. Often, elderly drivers will recognize when operating a vehicle becomes more challenging and impose limitations, such as no longer driving at night, staying off of freeways, or not driving during rush hour.

4 Ways Elderly Drivers Can Stay Behind The Wheel

1. Stay In “Driver Shape” 

Maintaining preventive measures to support a healthy mind and body will not only prolong those years of living the lifestyle you are accustomed to but will keep you in the driver’s seat as long as you are fit. Physical and mental activity are essential factors in keeping you safe behind the wheel. 

Physical Fitness

Staying physically active builds strength and flexibility, allowing an elderly driver to make the kinds of movements necessary in checking blind spots, manipulating the gas and brake effectively, and managing the steering wheel in the event of an emergency. 

Mental Acuity

Keep your mind sharp and aware by participating in stimulating activities. Reading, adult education courses, puzzle building, art projects, and mindful meditation will promote mental alertness when it comes to driving a vehicle. 

2. Regular Check-Ups

Have your hearing and vision checked regularly. Being able to hear what is going on around you (emergency sirens and car horns) is a crucial part of driving. Being able to see in all weather conditions, near and far, on sunny days as well as at night should never be a struggle. If your vision or hearing changes, make necessary adjustments, or heed the advice of your doctor if they suggest not driving.

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3. Be Mindful

Medication or a combination of medications prescribed for specific conditions or pain that can result in drowsiness or confusion. Be aware of these symptoms and refrain from driving a car when taking these prescriptions.

4. Recognize Warning Signs 

It is natural for you or your loved one to be reluctant to hand over the car keys. Loss of independence and isolation due to lack of mobility are genuine concerns for anyone who relies on a vehicle. He or she may not indicate they are having a hard time behind the wheel, therefore, recognizing limitations and the warning signs can help gauge when it’s time to stop driving. Some warning signs are:

  • Frequent close calls or near accidents. 
  • When there are scrapes or dents on the car, or surrounding objects such as the garage, mailbox or fence. 
  • Increased citations such as traffic tickets or warnings by law enforcement officers.
  • Difficulty with driving fundamentals such as sudden acceleration without reason, drifting from one lane to another, inability to make sudden lane changes, failure to use turn signals, or leaving turn signals on when not turning.
  • Trouble hearing emergency sirens or honking from other cars.
  • Problems with memory causing missed exits or getting lost frequently in familiar areas. 
  • Vision problems making it difficult to see traffic signals and street signs.
  • Problems with reflexes or range of motion, prohibiting you from braking suddenly, looking over your shoulder or confusing the brake and gas pedals. 
  • Getting frustrated or angry when behind the wheel.

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When Elderly Drivers Should Stop Driving

It takes a lot of courage to recognize the warning signs and to put your safety and those of others first. Surrendering a driver’s license can feel like a crippling loss of freedom. This conversation should be done with respect and compassion, and hopefully, a determination will be reached together.

If the conversation is met with reluctance, consulting a trusted friend, clergy member, or advice of a doctor may be necessary. Seek outside expertise by having an elderly driver’s evaluation done by an occupational therapist, driving rehabilitation therapist, or another trained professional to assess driving ability. The advice of a professional may make the transition easier to digest.

You may also provide alternative solutions to driving for the senior in your life. Public transportation, carpool services, and volunteer programs are geared toward helping the elderly stay mobile. Connecting seniors with friends who can drive comfortably and securely will provide more opportunities for social connections.

Determining when the time is right for you or your loved one to retire from driving takes careful consideration. Safety for the driver, passengers, and those on the road is essential. The conversation may be a challenging one to have, but dealing with a tragic outcome is even more difficult to handle. 

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