As a group, seniors age 80 and older have the highest rate of fatal crashes per mile driven — even higher than for teens — according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Simply put, too many people continue driving when it’s no longer safe for them to do so.
Vision problems, slower reactions and other effects of aging increase the risk of crashes. But most state legislatures ignore the problem. In Virginia, the only nod toward aging drivers’ safety is a required vision test after age 80, but licenses are good for eight years. Only 19 states make seniors renew their licenses more often than younger drivers. Half of those states cut eight- to ten-year renewal periods down to four to six years — only Illinois and New Mexico require annual renewal. Illinois is the only state to mandate that drivers retake the road test as they age.
Driving represents independence and freedom, in addition to providing mobility, and politicians aren’t eager to take on seniors by making driver’s-license renewals more stringent. If you have ever approached a spouse, parent or friend about giving up driving, you can appreciate why. But state lawmakers largely sidestep the issue, so it’s up to families to take action when a loved one is no longer a safe driver.
The right approach. If you suspect that an older family member’s driving skills have seriously deteriorated, take a ride with him. Note whether he has trouble judging gaps in traffic, following traffic signals and road signs, maneuvering or parking the car, or remembering the route. If there’s a problem, “address it head-on,” says Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA. “Most people wait until after a crash and it’s too late,” he says. But you should act before an accident occurs.
Choose the most appropriate person in your family to broach the subject. Miriam Zucker, a geriatric care manager, suggests starting with the positives, emphasizing safety and perhaps the need to back off driving because of a medical condition. Say something like, “Dad, you’ve been a safe driver for 60 years, but with your cataracts, I know it’s harder for you to drive at night. If you got hurt or hurt someone else, that would be awful.” Unless it’s clear the driver is unsafe all the time, suggest limiting driving to daytime hours — and perhaps staying off highways
Before you have the conversation, investigate transportation options in your area and their cost. Calculate how much money your family member would save by driving less or not at all, and point out that the savings could be used for other ways of getting around.
When an aging parent resists giving up driving, some families resort to disabling the car or hiding the keys. But it’s better to let the state department of motor vehicles make the decision. Often, the best way to make that happen is to take your case to your parents doctor. “Let the physician be the bad guy,” says Sharon Brangman, chief of geriatrics at Upstate Medical University, in Syracuse, N.Y.
Rules governing physicians, however, vary from state to state. In some, including New York, doctors can’t contact the DMV regarding a patient without the patient’s permission. In others, such as New Jersey, doctors are required to report patients they don’t believe should be behind the wheel anymore. (To see the laws in your state and more information about elder driving safety, go to SeniorDriving.AAA.com.)
A report to the DMV may trigger a review of your parent’s driving record or an order to retest the driver. It could also lead to a health evaluation. Depending on where you live, the report may be anonymous. If all else fails, you may have to obtain guardianship over your parent and get a court order to prevent him from driving, says Shirley Whitenack, a lawyer in New Jersey who specializes in elder-care law.