America is the land of fast cars and open roads. We relish our freedom and we love being able to get behind the wheel and go anywhere, anytime.
In American culture our cars have meaning far beyond mere transportation. They are important symbols of status and independence. But the act of driving itself is not one to be taken lightly. Driving is an increasingly demanding activity. It takes focus, motor skills and the ability to make quick judgments.
Some drivers remain extremely capable well into their senior years. There is no specific age when a driver should stop operating a motor vehicle. But the truth is that disease and the decline of vision, reflexes, and physical condition can force a driver to give up his or her license. This can happen at age 60, or not until age 90. Or never.
According to SmartMotorist.com, in the next 20 years the number of elderly drivers (persons 70 and over) is predicted to triple in the United States. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that on the basis of estimated annual travel, the fatality rate for drivers 85 and over is nine times as high as the rate for drivers 25 through 69 years old.
USA Today says that many U.S. states have tried a range of approaches, but for the most part they have struggled to establish precise standards for determining when seniors should be kept off the road while being fair to older drivers who remain capable.
Many drivers do recognize when their skills diminish and voluntarily relinquish their keys. Nearly 600,000 people limit their driving or stop entirely every year. But some seniors cling to their need for independence to the point they put themselves and others in danger.
It is often an adult child who must tell an aging parent or relative that their driving behavior has become hazardous. It is emotional because it symbolizes a loss of independence and personal dignity. It is demoralizing and embarrassing. But it cannot be ignored or many lives, including your loved one’s, could be at risk.
When should someone stop driving? AARP offers this list of warning signs to look for:
- The driver feels nervous, fearful or uncomfortable while driving
- There are dents and scrapes on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, curbs etc.
- The driver has trouble staying within their lane of traffic
- The driver frequently becomes lost and has trouble using a map or GPS
- The driver doesn’t pay attention or misses signals and road signs
- The driver cannot react quickly enough to unexpected situations, such as a driver in front of them stopping abruptly or changing lanes unexpectedly
- Medical conditions or medications are affecting the driver’s ability to handle the car safely
- The driver starts having frequent “close calls” (i.e., almost crashing)
- The driver cannot judge gaps in traffics at intersections and on highway on and off ramps
- Other drivers are using their horns and indicating frustration with an older driver
- Friends or relatives no longer want to be a passenger in the driver’s car
- The driver is easily distracted or having a hard time concentrating while driving
- The driver has a hard time turning around to check over their shoulder while backing up or changing lanes
- The driver has received numerous traffic tickets or “warnings” by traffic or law enforcement officers in the last year or two
You may wonder about older friends and family members’ performance on the road. You want to support their continued mobility but on the other hand you worry about their driving abilities. If you find yourself concerned about an older driver, take the following steps.
First, talk with the older driver and explore any health issues that might be affecting driving skills. For example, if vision at night is a problem, the driver could limit driving to daytime hours and avoid long trips. Some medications can significantly impair driving by making the driver drowsy or distracted. Physicians and pharmacists should be consulted before starting new medications, to see if the drug can affect the ability to drive. Find out if medical conditions are limiting mobility or causing stress. A discussion with a medical professional (with permission of the driver) may uncover some issues that could possibly be corrected or mitigated.
Take a safe, short trip with the older driver. Keep notes about problems that you observe. Don’t make remarks or try to help during the trip. It will only distract the driver and make him or her nervous. Review your observations after the drive is over.
If there is a serious problem, it may be best to get a third party to intervene. Ask a medical professional or law enforcement officer to request the driver be tested by your state’s department of motor vehicles. A family member can also make this request in most states, and it can often be anonymous. The IIHS has a list of state laws concerning elderly drivers at http://www.iihs.org/laws/olderdrivers.aspx
It’s helpful to have alternative transportation options in place before the day comes where you must hang up your car keys for good. Visit the website http://www.getting-around.org/home/ for resources and ideas for coping with your new circumstances, including a “Self-Awareness Questionnaire.”
If all else fails and you feel the situation with a senior driver is too dangerous, you must take the keys and remove the car. Although difficult and emotional, the potential risks and consequences of not doing it are so great, it could be a lifesaving decision.
Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!