Are older people safe enough to keep driving?

By lorina balan 0 comments

There’s no legal age at which you must stop driving. You can decide when to stop as long as you don’t have any medical conditions that affect your driving.

In the Western world, people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. As everyone ages, there is a desire to stay mobile, and in particular, continue to drive in order to maintain their lifestyles. Shops and services are becoming dispersed, moving away from villages and towns to larger urban areas. Connections to lifelong family and friends need to be maintained often through long-distance travel. It’s, therefore, no surprise that there has been a huge increase in older driving license holders, and in the number of miles driven by the over-70s.


Driving has become both such a necessity and a desire that giving it up has been linked to loneliness and isolation, an increase in depression and health-related problems. One US study even found that non-drivers were four to six times more likely to die within three years than drivers within a three-year period.

But are older drivers actually safe to stay on the road? Deterioration in working memory, cognitive overload, and eyesight, all related to aging, can hamper driving. Recovering from the glare of a low sun, for example, can change from two seconds of white-out to as much as nine seconds. Physiological and cognitive deterioration can also prolong reaction time: over 65s can be 22 times slower than someone under 30, making maneuvers difficult and potentially making driving dangerous.


Most families are reluctant to have the uncomfortable driving conversation with parents as they get older. But the harsh reality is that if we don’t have “the talk” with Dad and Mom about when it’s time to take away their keys, they may put themselves or others at risk on the road.


Should seniors drive? Most certainly if they don’t pose a risk on the road. However, many think there should be more tests to determine whether they are fit.

State driving laws vary. Some require an annual eye exam and driving tests, and others require only an eye exam, every five years. Many require people to renew in person starting at age 65, rather than online, which allows licensing officials to look for signs of health conditions that could affect driving ability; but it’s argued there are flaws with this process as things can be missed. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety does a good job outlining the license renewal procedures for senior drivers.

Do Your Own Test

It’s a good idea to do your own test in addition to the state driving tests.

Here are a few you can do to give yourself a gut check as to whether your elderly parent should be driving:

Check the vehicle: Check the car for dents and scrapes for a good indication of how your elderly parent is driving.

Ride along: Be the passenger in your elderly parent’s car on a regular basis. Check to see how your Dad or Mom controls the vehicle, stays in the lane, handles turns, stays within the speed limit and drives overall. Remember that it can be a fun outing, rather than an interrogation. By going on an outing or trip to the store, you can quietly make your observations without nagging.

Visit the physician: This is simple. Ask your elderly parents’ physician whether they think it’s a good idea about whether they should still drive. If their physician said they shouldn’t be on the road, this can present a good case to your parent to take away the keys.

Who Helps Determine Whether Seniors Should Stop Driving?

Many argue that seniors should be required to take more tests. It’s not popular politically to have seniors take more driving tests, but it’s all about the safety on the road. A National Safety Council survey showed that Americans believe the following people should determine whether an elderly driver is no longer fit to drive:

  • DMV or government: 23%
  • Doctor/caretaker: 29%
  • Family: 25%

Viewpoints are obviously split, making the debacle even more challenging. Often a combination of people ultimately builds the case for taking the keys away from aging Mom or Dad.

When Should Seniors Stop Driving?

So when is the right time to stop seniors from driving and take away the keys? Many believe that the family of an elderly driver is usually in the best position to assess the senior’s condition and ability to drive. Physicians also play an active role.

Here are some abilities and conditions to consider:

  1. Diseases: Diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia can affect judgment and driving ability. They can become disoriented and probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel. If your parent has been diagnosed with these diseases, consult their physician. Diabetics also need to be cleared to drive by their physician.
  2. Medications: Prescription drugs have side effects that can cause drowsiness or affect a person’s reaction time. Consult Dad or Mom’s physician to see whether their medications put them at risk.
  3. Physical ability: Driving takes coordination and dexterity. Dad and Mom need to have strength in arms, feet, and legs to control the vehicle. Also keep in mind that people shrink, so you may need to adjust the seat and add pillows to sit on, if necessary.
  4. Physical activity: If your aging parents are no longer exercising, you need to consider whether they can drive. The body atrophies without physical activity to build or maintain agility, coordination or strength. Even a daily walk can help to get them away from the television.
  5. Vision: Does Dad or Mom suffer from cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma or macular degeneration? Does their physician have concerns about limitations or vision problems?

According to the American Academy of Neurology, indicators of decreased driving ability may include:

  • Aggressive or impulsive personality changes
  • A recent accident or near misses
  • Changes in vision or hearing
  • Chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, glaucoma, respiratory illness
  • Driving under the influence or increased alcohol consumption
  • Taking medications that cause drowsiness
  • Traffic citations

Here are more steps to take when evaluating whether your older loved one should still be driving:

  1. Arrange for alternate transportation: Learn from Driving Miss Daisy — sometimes a bus route, subway or taxi is an option for your loved one. Contacting a social worker might help to find out resources available to seniors in your area.
  2. Check your state laws: There are many regulations and restrictions on older drivers, such as eye exams at increased intervals after a certain age or neurological tests. This knowledge also helps you make sure you are following the law to avoid uncomfortable liability issues if something does happen. For information on your state, visit: “Older Drivers: Licensing Renewal Provisions.”
  3. Check with the doctor: The primary care physician can determine whether your loved one is both mentally and physically capable to drive. The doctor can also “prescribe” that someone stop driving, which can help with the uncomfortable delivery.
  4. Consult a driving rehabilitation expert: An expert can assess senior cognition, hearing, and motor skills, and even make an on-road assessment. For a certified specialist, visit AAA Foundation for Driver Safety.
  5. Practice Empathy: Remember to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes — don’t minimize feelings and make sure you listen to his or her frustrations. It’s important to get your family together for an intervention to provide a cohesive message of concern to your senior loved one.
  6. Talk to an Attorney: It never hurts to get an idea of potential financial and/or legal consequences in the instance of a crash or injury.

Making the Decision to Take Away the Keys

No one wants to give up his or her freedom — and driving is one of the most powerful symbols of independence. Taking away the keys from a senior loved one can be an emotional and uncomfortable situation.

Dad and Mom were the ones who were pained to hand over their keys to you when you were a teenager, so having to worry about them driving is a major role reversal that can be devastating. But it’s all part of the senior care of our parents.

Taking away someone’s freedom on the road is challenging, but it’s better than some of the consequences that can occur if you don’t.

Do you have any experience with elderly drivers taking driving tests? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.



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