Senior Driving

Seniors and Driving

From time to time a family member may become concerned about a loved ones driving abilities. Although driving ability is not necessarily determined by age and many seniors drive safely and successfully, there are changes which can affect driving ability over time. Many of these changes happen as we age and these can contribute to unsafe driving practices. Some changes can affect the ability to turn the head to check for traffic, or to brake quickly. Other changes affect the ability to respond appropriately to situations as they occur. All drivers must have the ability to react quickly to other cars and people on the road.

How dangerous is it?

Some elderly drivers are a danger to themselves and others on the road. Driving is an activity which requires many thought processes, actions and movements all happening simultaneously. It requires quick thinking and quick reactions, which for many people, diminish with age. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), statistics do show that older drivers are more likely than younger ones to be involved in crashes. Risk of injury or being killed in a motor vehicle accident does increases as people age. In addition, a senior who is involved in a motor vehicle crash is at greater risk of injury or death than someone younger. If you are hesitant about having the discussion about driving with your loved one, considering the possible outcome could help you overcome your hesitation.

seniors and driving

How do you know when the time has come?

There are warning signs to look for if you are concerned about a family members driving or even your own. We have put together a "Senior Driving Checklist" for you to print and fill out. When you notice some of these warning signs it is time to assess the situation. Don't wait for an accident to happen. You can also take a look at the other resources we have listed.

How to talk with your loved one about driving

First of all, do not assume that one discussion will be all that is needed. This is a delicate situation which may require many conversations. You must be respectful of their right to make choices.

Secondly, don’t come on too strong or as a “know it all”, be considerate of their thoughts and feelings, and let them have a say. If your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or dementia they may be unaware of the changes in their abilities and capabilities. When someone is unaware of the changes, this can result in great reluctance on their part of giving up the ability to drive. They may see this as a great loss of their independence and can be quite traumatic for some people. It is important to consider the person’s feelings.

Ask them questions.  Lead the conversation with questions to get them talking. This may help them to see the need to give up driving. Ask them “How have you felt recently when driving or after driving?”, “Have you gotten confused at all recently when driving?”, “Can you tell me about the new dents on your vehicle?” It may even be possible for you both to fill out the “Senior Driving Checklist” together.

What if they are reluctant to give up driving?

Many seniors are reluctant to give up driving because they fear the loss of their independence. In this situation, rather than just taking their keys, a road test would be a good consideration. In some states, the local Department of Motor Vehicles offers testing to determine a person’s abilities when driving and responding to situations when on the road and in traffic. They can also test for vision and distance perception. If your state does not offer this service, there are companies which offer this service. The Alzheimer’s Association or other similar agency may be able to provide a list of resources. Some places offer a Mature Drivers course, if your loved one is reluctant to take the course, remind them that their insurance and their roadside assistance may offer a discount for taking it.

What if they refuse to give up driving?

  • If at all possible it is always best to get your loved one to agree to give up driving voluntarily.  The loss of the independence can be traumatic and can lead to depression, having that right taken from them can be even more traumatic. Be prepared for this ahead of time. Sometimes however, they simply refuse to do so voluntarily. Then comes to the difficult decision, for their safety and the safety of others, to take drastic measures.
  • Involve their physician: Schedule an appointment with your loved one and their physician so you can discuss the situation together, seniors often will listen to and respect the opinion of their physician. If you do go to talk to the doctor, bring alone a copy of the “Senior Driving Checklist” filled out. Sometimes the loss of driving ability is a process and the doctor may recommend some first steps such as the agreement to not drive after dark. Discuss these options together.
  • Involve their optometrist/ophthalmologist: as stated above, seniors will often respect their opinion.
  • Involve the State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV): In some states, it might be best to alert the department of motor vehicles. The caregiver can often meet with a representative and request a driving test and vision examination, some states do not honor this request.  In some states you can write a letter directly to the DMV and express your concerns, or request that the person’s license be revoked. The letter should state that “(the person’s full name) is a hazard on the road,” and offer the reason (Alzheimer’s disease). The state may require a statement from your physician that certifies the person is no longer able to drive. Research your state or talk to a physician who may be able to guide you. Contact your local DMV to find out their recommendation on how to proceed.
  • Control access to the keys: designate one person to do all the driving and give them exclusive access to the car keys.
  • Disable the car in some way:  Discuss this with a mechanic.
  • Give the person a set of keys that looks like his or her old set, but that don’t work to start the car.
  • Consider selling the car: Discuss with your loved one the potential financial savings which comes with selling the car. There could potentially be enough savings to pay for any public transportation or even taxi rides. There would be savings on insurance, vehicle payments, gas, maintenance, etc.

If you have increasing concern about your loved one’s driving, the above information should give you some ideas for how to begin the conversation. If you are in our area and need transportation services, feel free to call us to discuss some options for your family.

Additional Resources:


How Seniors Can Become Safer Drivers

According to AAA (American Automobile Association), “Experts agree that driving ability generally begins to deteriorate at age 55.” Of course, everyone is different, but certain physical limitations like decreased neck flexibility (see AAA Foundation’s brochure with driving-specific flexibility exercises) and deteriorating eyesight begin to surface at about that age. It is common for people to feel that their many years of driving experience qualifies them to be better drivers, and drivers in their 50s and 60s actually do have lower crash rates compared to other age groups.  However, research shows that crash rates increase as drivers approach age 70 and certainly increase after age 75. 

Organizations like AAA and AARP provide senior drivers and their families access to various tools to evaluate current driving abilities. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety offers a survey online for drivers to measure their own performance on the road. Drivers 65 Plus: Check Your Own Performance is a 15-question survey that gives a driver immediate feedback about whether or not driving is still a good idea. An added benefit to this survey is the detailed list of suggestions that is generated in relation to the individual’s answers, which helps drivers make adjustments to become safer drivers.

AARP offers online and classroom driver safety courses for seniors. Their curriculum covers topics like minimizing dangerous blind spots, monitoring your own driving abilities and those of other drivers, the effects of medications on driving, and the importance of eliminating distractions. You can locate a class in your area at the AARP website.  Click here to locate an AARP class near you

How do you know when it’s time for you or a loved one to consider a driver safety program? You don’t want to wait until an accident has happened, especially one that could have been prevented with a few safety precautions. 

CarFit Program – Make your car safer.

CarFit is an educational program that offers advice on improving your car’s safety.  Created by the American Society on Aging, AAA, AARP, and the American Occupational Therapy Association, CarFit shows seniors how well their cars “fit” them and what changes they can make to the car for a safer fit.

Examples of CarFit’s 12 key areas which improve road safety include: 

  1. Mirrors – Knowing how to properly adjust car mirrors can greatly minimize blind spots when changing lanes.
  2. Pedal position – Good foot positioning on the gas and brake pedals can decrease fatigue and increase reaction times.
  3. Distance from the steering wheel – Drivers run the risk of serious injury if they are sitting closer than 10 inches to the steering wheel.

Drivers can download an informational CarFit brochure with helpful hints for safer driving. Click here to download.

Or, find a CarFit event near you where professionals will assess you and your vehicle.Click here to see a list of CarFit events.

AAA notes these as signs of diminished capacity for driving safely:

    • Having a series of minor accidents or near misses.
    • Having wandering thoughts or being unable to concentrate.
    • Being unable to read ordinary road signs.
    • Getting lost on familiar roads.
    • Having other drivers honk at you frequently.
    • Being spoken to about your driving by police, family, and friends.

At the time you or a senior loved one experience any of these signs, consider learning more about becoming a better driver through one of the many quality senior driving programs. Seniors can keep themselves and others safe by learning more about how to drive on the roads today. 

An added benefit of taking a senior safety driving course is that many insurance companies will offer discounts to seniors who have completed a course, thereby reducing insurance premiums. Check with your insurance company for the safe driving programs they recognize for senior discounts.

Senior driving is such an important issue that researchers at theAgeLab at MIT University are spending time and money to know more about what senior drivers are truly encountering on the road. They are using two devices to study senior driving and the risks involved with natural aging, disease, medication, or other conditions. “Miss Rosie” is a Volkswagen Beetle that is equipped with instruments to measure a driver’s physical attributes like spinal mobility and required strength while operating a vehicle. “Miss Daisy” is a vehicle simulator with sensors attached to the accelerator, brake and steering wheel. The driver receives feedback about their visual, auditory and kinetic responses to highway, rural, urban, and desert driving situations. Both machines help researchers and the driving industry understand what the senior driver is faced with and can develop effective senior driving programs, therefore lengthening the time that senior drivers can stay behind the wheel.

If a senior loved one in your life is at the point where it may be unsafe to be behind the wheel, be sensitive. Having a driver’s license is more than just the ability to drive a car; it is also a symbol of freedom and self-sufficiency. Most people do not give up the right to drive willingly, even if he or she would agree that driving has become more difficult. To begin the conversation, one method is to share a story of, “someone you know whose older loved one has….” You can finish this sentence in a way that lines up with your situation: been in many accidents, or who caused injury to themselves, or had their insurance rates increase because of these incidents. The AAA and AARPwebsites also offer suggestions on how to begin conversations with senior loved ones about their driving.

By the year 2025, senior drivers will make up 20 percent of the driving population (Bloomberg News, 2010). In November 2010, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), for the first time in its 40-year existence, studied safety issues for older drivers.  NTSB may use its findings to recommend car or road designs that would be safer for aging drivers and may even address medical-related issues for licensing drivers who have limitations because of dementia. With so much attention focused on driver education and promoting safer driving for seniors, senior drivers can take advantage of opportunities to learn how to keep themselves safe on the road and driving longer.

This article by The Society of Certified Senior Advisors

For a downloadable version of this article click here.