When Should Elderly Drivers Stop Getting Behind The Wheel?

Can elderly drivers be trusted on the road? Accidents begin to occur more frequently the older we get, and many parts of the aging process put us at a higher risk. Driving may not seem as easy as it once was for you or a loved one. As a result, it may be time to start considering alternative transportation options.

Statistics, Numbers, And Trends

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 36.8 million senior citizens were licensed drivers in 2013. NHTSA also asserts that this number will grow to over 40 million by the year 2020. Of those who are 65 and older, 5,671 people were killed in auto accidents in 2013. This number accounts for 17% of all American motorists who died on the road.

The risk of accidents increases with age, namely at age 75 and older. However, the types of accidents differ. Aging adults are more likely to get into crashes. But those accidents are less likely to be related to things like operating the vehicle while intoxicated, driving at night or speeding.

Keeping these numbers in mind, crashes among older drivers age 65 and older have decreased in recent years. The decrease is likely due to a few factors. These factors are mostly due to better technology. The result is safer cars, safer roads, and better health for seniors.

What Puts Elderly Drivers At Higher Risk?

According to the NIH, several age-associated factors could increase the risk of traffic accidents. These include:

  • Stiff joints and muscles – This can include arthritis. Arthritis can make using a car more difficult. The disease can slow reaction time by impeding the ability to turn the wheel quickly or look back. Braking safely can also be more challenging.
  • Poor Eyesight – Eyesight can change and worsen as you age. It can become harder to see things away from your direct line of sight. Driving at night or glare from the sun can cause additional problems.
  • Poor hearing – Hearing issues may prevent senior citizens from hearing warnings on the road. Examples such as sirens from emergency vehicles or horns from other cars. When behind the wheel, adults must be able to hear and react immediately when they’re on the road.
  • Changes in attention and reaction time – As we age, our response times slow down a bit. We process information slower, and our reflexes aren’t as sharp. All of the signs, pedestrians, and cars can be overwhelming for an elder driver.
  • Medications – Some medications have side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness. These can impair driving ability and make it a risky proposition.

Safety Tips: How Senior Drivers Can Be Safer On The Road

One positive that older motorists have in their corner is that they have a lot of experience operating a motor vehicle. The experience can help you be more prepared for the many possible scenarios you’ll face. Unfortunately, some situations can be out of our control. The DMV recommends these safety tips for senior citizens who are still on the road:

  • Stay away from driving at night – Eyesight can begin to deteriorate as early as our 30’s. Operating a car or truck at night can be increasingly risky. Some roads are not well lit, and pedestrians can be very hard to see.
  • Enroll in a driving course – There are courses available geared towards senior drivers. (It could also be a good way to meet others in your age group and make a few new friends!)
  • Avoid rush hour and heavy traffic – This isn’t always possible. However, if you have the option to drive during times where the roads are less busy, it is recommended that you do so.
  • Plan ahead – If you are using a GPS, enter your address before you leave. Make phone calls or send texts before putting the car in drive. Know where you’re going and how you’re getting there.
  • Warm-up before you drive – It may sound unnecessary, but doing some mild stretching before hitting the road can improve flexibility, give you some energy, and fight fatigue.
  • Share the road – Always be prepared to share the road and be attentive to the other vehicles in your vicinity. Even if you are practicing proper driving habits, others may not.
  • Avoid distractions – Distractions can include talking on a cell phone, text messages, listening to the radio too loud, and eating.

Mature Driver Laws

Many elderly folks are living beyond their ability to drive safely. To address this issue, states are enacting laws which create special licensing requirements for elderly driving.

There are 33 states as well as the District of Colombia which have created provisions for motorists age 60 and older. These requirements include drivers having to renew their license more frequently, restrictions for mailed/online renewals, vision and road tests, as well as reduced or waived fees for renewals.

When To Hand Over The Keys

Independence is an important aspect of life for most seniors. They want to retain it as long as they can, and a major part of being independent is the ability to drive. However, there comes a time where it is simply too dangerous. Numerous warning signs can signify that this period has indeed come for an elderly driver. These include:

  • Coming close to accidents
  • Discovering damage to the car such as dents or scratches
  • Getting lost in places that are familiar
  • Difficulty seeing traffic signs, signals, or road markings
  • Confusing the gas and brake pedals or not reacting quickly enough to unexpected situations
  • Causing other motorists to honk or complain
  • Having difficulty concentrating or becoming easily distracted
  • Difficulty turning to check mirrors when reversing or attempting to change lanes
  • Getting multiple traffic tickets

There are a few questions you should ask yourself in regards to your ability to drive to determine if it might be time to give it up. Some of these questions are:

  • “Have friends or family expressed concerns about my time behind the wheel?”
  • “Do people or cars on the road seem to appear suddenly without warning?”
  • “Has my confidence level in my driving dropped, causing me to drive less than I used to?”
  • “Am I having difficulty staying in my lane?”
  • “Are other drivers often honking at me?”

If these are questions you find yourself answering “yes” to, it may be time to consider alternative methods of transportation.

Having “The Talk” About Driving With A Loved One

Sometimes we notice that it’s time for our loved ones to turn over their keys before they do. They may feel there is no real issue with being elderly and driving and believe they can still do it safely. When situations like these arise, we need to sit down and have a discussion to help them understand why it is time for them to stop using their car. 

The first step is to prepare for the conversation beforehand. Ideally, you will have this discussion before problems begin to arise but that is not always possible. Assess the driving ability of your loved one and understand their skills and capabilities at this stage. Determine the transportation needs they have. Where do they need to go? What do they enjoy doing?

Next, you’ll want to learn about available resources. You may opt to discuss the matter with the physician or healthcare provider of your loved one. Check out driver assessment programs and see what is available. Understand alternative and available transportation methods for them so that you can present other options.

Lastly, when speaking to an older adult about their driving, focus on safety. Make it clear that you have their best interests in mind and avoid being confrontational. Let them know that you are not trying to strip them of their independence and still want them to be free to do the things they enjoy.

Alternative Forms Of Transportation

Just because an older adult can no longer safely drive themselves does not mean they need to stop traveling altogether. There are numerous available forms of transportation. Some examples are:

  • Public transportation – This includes trains, buses, and trams. These options are usually cheaper than the other alternatives
  • Transportation network companies – Examples of this are newer technologies such as Uber or Lyft. These options may be a bit more expensive than public transit, but they are reliable and available at all hours.
  • Mobility Scooters – Electric powered scooters are becoming more accessible, with prices decreasing and inventories increasing as more and more manufacturers enter the market. The new options increase Seniors ability to access their immediate geographic areas with increased ease of mobility.
  • Volunteer transportation services – These are not always available and sometimes require prior scheduling. However, they can be a convenient option for some seniors.
  • Para-Transit – Usually available in most places for those with disabilities. These are run by senior centers and public transit agencies
  • Carpooling – This option is much less flexible than certain others. It can, however, be an inexpensive and even enjoyable option for some seniors.

Summarizing Key Points

Driving can become more of a challenge as we age. The increased difficulty can be due to many factors which include the decline of things like eyesight, hearing, reaction time, as well as many other factors. It is important to look for warning signs and consider whether or not it is still safe for you or your loved one to drive unsupervised.

Do you feel like operating a vehicle is becoming harder for yourself or a senior citizen in your family? Are you concerned and wondering if maybe it is time to give it up? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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Stevie Compango, CNSC, CPT

Stevie is Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for the past 10 years. He specializes in mobility and chronic pain management. His methods have helped thousands of clients improve the quality of their life through movement.

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