Getting older isn't necessarily a reason to give up driving.
While older drivers are keeping their licenses longer and logging more miles on their cars than in the past, the number of fatal crashes involving drivers age 70 and over has declined significantly since the mid-1990s, a June 2021 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found.
Still, fatal crash rates per miles traveled do tend to increase considerably after age 70 and reach their peak among drivers 85 and older, according to IIHS data.
Because you want to make sure your loved one doesn't become one of those unfortunate statistics, take a proactive approach to making sure your parent, partner or spouse is still fit to drive.
For many older drivers, driving serves as a form of independence and sometimes even a source of pride, so this is a sensitive subject.
If you can, “have your loved one's doctor broach the subject. As health care professionals, we need to accept responsibility for bringing up this subject,” says George T. Grossberg, director of geriatric psychiatry at the St. Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri. If your loved one's physician doesn't bring up the topic, ask the doctor to address it.
Combating a ‘false sense of security'
It's unrealistic to trust that your loved one will hand over the keys at the appropriate time. Some older adults might, but others won't.
"As we get older, we tend to develop a more positive outlook on things. The problem is, it gives us a false sense of security when it comes to things like driving,” says Gary J. Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
In addition, certain medical conditions — such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, dementia, glaucoma and macular degeneration, Parkinson's disease, and stroke — can compromise a person's driving abilities. “The more medications you take and the more medical conditions you have, the more at risk you are with driving,” Kennedy says.
The deciding factor: whether grandchildren are allowed in the car when the older adult is driving.
If not, “this is a clear indicator of peril, and it is time to retire from driving, not just for the sake of the driver's grandchildren but for all the other kids on the road,” Kennedy says.
Driving warning signs
Medical issues aren't the only reasons to worry about driving abilities. These problems suggest an older family member should have second thoughts about driving:
- Driving too slow or too fast consistently
- Getting lost on familiar roads
- Having recent car accidents or near misses
- Having trouble parking or turning left
- Receiving tickets for driving violations
- Running red lights or stop signs
- Showing up with new dents or scratches on the car
- Using lanes improperly
Observe as a passenger
If you have concerns about an older adult's driving, run an errand with the driver so you can really gauge response time and your general confidence in your loved one's proficiency, says Sara M. Bradley, an associate professor of general internal medicine and geriatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
If red flags appear during the drive, broach the conversation later by gently pointing out that you're concerned about your loved one's vulnerability on the road and ability to protect passengers from other, potentially more aggressive drivers.
Noting that the cognitive or motor-skills changes they're experiencing put them at greater risk from other drivers is “a better way to frame it than saying, ‘You're not safe,'” Kennedy says. “That way, they're less to blame.”
It is also worth encouraging older loved ones to take a self-assessment questionnaire from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to see if any potentially problematic symptoms could affect their driving abilities. AARP also offers online safety courses for older drivers; classroom courses, which were shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, are scheduled to resume in January 2022. Passing the course could lower your auto insurance premium.
"Sometimes they are aware that they're slowing down, and if it's approached as an ongoing dialogue, people tend to be more receptive,” Bradley says. Loved ones might recognize some of the signs in themselves and realize that they have been feeling less confident driving under certain conditions.
In addition, encourage your loved one to have an older adult driving evaluation. These are often available at hospitals and administered by occupational therapists or driving rehab specialists.
"These evaluations have nothing to do with licensure,” Grossberg says. Knowing this may ease a family's reluctance to have one.
The evaluation might “find that the person is a safe driver but not at night or in areas they don't know,” Grossberg says. In other words, your loved one may realize that it makes sense to put some restrictions on his or her driving rather than putting an end to it altogether.
In some instances, the specialist “can suggest vehicle adaptations that make it safer for the person to continue driving,” Bradley says.
Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have special provisions for mature drivers — Maryland requires a vision test for renewal starting at age 40, for example. Along with vision tests, these might include in-person license renewals, more frequent renewals and road tests, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Nondrivers have more options these days
If it does become clear that your loved one needs to stop driving, you can help take some of the sting from the loss by helping figure out practical ways to deal with it. Perhaps by using online grocery delivery services, finding a friend or family member to step in and drive, or talking with a religious leader to find other ways for your loved one to get to a place of worship.
Help set up a taxi, Lyft or Uber account on your loved one's smartphone, and show him or her how to use it if assistance is needed.
"Rather than saying, ‘Stop,’ say, ‘Let me help,’ “ Kennedy says.
Stacey Colino is an independent award-winning writer specializing in health, psychology and family issues. Her work has appeared in dozens of national magazines, websites and books.