Older Adults and Driving: The Facts, Risks, and Alternatives

Driving is a privilege, not a right, but many older adults feel they should be able to drive as long as they like. The truth, however, is that older adults who can no longer drive safely should not be allowed to drive, for their safety and that of the general public. Because many older adults associate driving with independence it can become a contentious situation when a senior needs to give up the keys. Before the battle begins, take a moment to look at both sides and some of the options available to older adults.

The perspective of an older adult

Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean older adults should automatically give up driving. Many feel as long as they can pass the driving vision test and whatever state exams are required, they are good to go. They haven’t had major accidents (maybe just a fender bender or bump or two) and that could happen to anyone. Right? Maybe.

What many older adults fail to recognize, however, is that aging affects more than sight. Reflexes and reaction times can slow down. Hearing loss can be dangerous on the road when a siren or horn isn’t heard in time. Medications can cause dizziness. Memory loss can endanger older drivers when they cannot find their way home. Any of these alone or together can mean driving is no longer safe for an older adult. But one good way older adults can honestly assess their own driving ability is to take the “Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully Self-Assessment” provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Another option is to take the AARP defensive driving course to sharpen skills, and possibly lower insurance rates.

The perspective of adult children

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s blog, “Older Adult Drivers,” 20 seniors are killed and 700 injured every day in traffic crashes in the U.S. No wonder many seniors’ family members are eager to have their parents leave the driving to others. Adult children may notice new dents and scrapes on their parents’ car, or observe the vehicle needs maintenance to keep it safe on the road. They may also have noticed a parent’s memory is slipping, that they need more help just getting to the car, or that the radio volume is higher than ever, signaling hearing loss. All are signs that it may be time to reconsider driving. Learn more about how to size up the situation and address it for yourself or a loved one in the National Institute on Aging’s blog, “Older Drivers.”

Risk versus independence

With an older adult’s independence weighing in the balance, both parents and children need to understand the risks of driving for aging drivers. One of the greatest is age itself. According to the CDC, “Drivers aged 70+ have higher crash death rates per mile driven than middle-aged drivers (aged 35-54). Higher crash death rates among this age group are primarily due to increased vulnerability to injury in a crash.” 

Other risk factors include forgetting to wear a seat belt, driving in conditions they could handle years ago but that are now unsafe for them, and other drivers who are not driving safely. Add to those: poor vision or hearing, slower reflexes and memory issues, and the risk escalates. Find out more in the agingcare.com article, “20 Warning Signs an Elderly Driver Is No Longer Safe Behind the Wheel.”

Other options for older adults

When broaching the subject of giving up driving, older adults may bristle, setting up the framework for a confrontation, but one way to get off on the right foot is to let them know all the options now available to them. Perhaps the safest is setting up a schedule with family members who are available to drive an older adult to appointments, shopping, or other venues they want to visit like movie theaters, parks, etc. Ask all volunteers to provide the days and times they are available and fill in a calendar accordingly. 

Other options include public transportation for getting around town or around the country, when the older adult is fit and well. Or they can call a taxi, Lyft or Uber for short trips such as to a friend’s or the grocery store.  

For those in a senior living community, like Thrive Senior Living, transportation is provided for appointments as well as for outings and other events. This transportation is a great way for seniors to remain independent, get around and about, and stay safe doing it. 

Avoiding driver’s license renewal

When an older adult refuses to give up driving, there are few options to prevent them from doing so, and every state has different rules and regulations. But one option may be for the adult child to speak with their loved one’s physician and ask them for written proof that the older adult should no longer drive due to vision, hearing, memory loss, or other mental or physical conditions. This can be sent to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles which can then choose to deny renewal or revoke a driver’s license as the law allows. 

But the best way to keep an older adult off the road is to talk with them (not at them) and ask them to do it voluntarily with the support of all their friends and family. For great tips on how to do it right, the yourvintage.org article, “Giving up Driving: How to have the Conversation,” can help.

At Thrive Senior Living, we cherish our residents and do everything possible to help them stay independent and safe. To find out more about Thrive, our housing options and our amenities, contact us today!

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