Do you remember when you first got a driver’s license? For me it was over 50 years ago, but I remember it vividly. It was both scary and exhilarating: the adulthood it implied, the freedom it offered, the awesome responsibility. Wow, that was a memorable moment of my life.
Now that I am at the other end of my life, I recognize that there comes a time when declining physical or mental abilities mean that it is no longer appropriate for a person to be driving but it is hard to tell when that point has arrived. Cars are getting smarter, but they are not smart enough to tell us that it is no longer safe to drive.
Over the years I have met with many children of aging parents who expressed concerns that Mom or Dad was still driving. (For some reason, my recollection is that it was usually Dad, not Mom, who was the problem). This can be a big issue for both the kids and the parent. Children don’t know how to convince their parent that it is time to stop driving. They surely want to avoid a confrontation with their parent. And they understand that losing your license to drive is a big deal.
No one who drives wants that right taken away. Yes, it does seem like both a right and “rite” of adulthood. Losing it will be like returning to those pre-age 16 days, but without having the youthful ability to run and ride a bike. For an older adult, giving up the car keys can involve a significant loss of freedom, and increased social isolation and dependency. We don’t want to burden relatives and friends every time we need to run an errand. And if we live in a rural area, we may have no other realistic transportation options. It’s no wonder that the thought of not being able to drive creates anxiety and depression.
How do you know when the time has come to restrict driving, or maybe even stop entirely? And what can children do to help their parent through this difficult transition?
I’ve found that there is actually quite a bit of guidance available online. For example, the AAA website has a tool that can help seniors assess their skills and get advice on how to maximize their safety on the road. And the AARP website has advice and a free online seminar for family members. Additional resources are listed below in this article.
How to Assess Driving Ability
If you need to assess a senior’s driving ability, Consumer Reports suggests you watch for these red flags:
- Slow response times.
- Inability to fully turn to check blind spots.
- Running stop signs.
- Motorists honking at them frequently.
- A hesitation or reluctance to drive.
- Cognitive dysfunction, such as getting lost or calling for help.
- Repeat fender benders, dings, or paint scrapes on the car.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation offers the following list of questions a child can ask their parent:
- Do you feel less comfortable driving now than you did five years ago?
- Have you had more near-accidents in the last year or so?
- Do intersections bother you because of all the cars and activity in several directions?
- Is it harder to judge the distance and speed of cars when you merge into traffic?
- Is night driving more difficult because of glare and blurred vision?
A “yes” response to any of these questions suggests that a driver refresher course or a discussion with the older driver’s physician may be in order.
Information is available online that can help older drivers and their children assess driving ability. Especially helpful is an American Automobile Association booklet that allows older drivers to test their performance by answering a number of simple questions. Drivers 65 Plus: Check Your Performance,
The Hartford Insurance Company has a booklet that offers guidance to children about how to initiate a caring conversation with their parent about driving:
What you can do if the Older Driver ignores your legitimate concerns
What can a child do if Dad won’t respond to your concerns about his driving?
Discuss the problem with the older driver’s health care provider. You can turn to your parent’s physician for help. Of course, this can be a messy issue for doctors who typically have no training in assessing driving safety. This is not something that can be treated with standard medical advice or a prescription. And physicians are appropriately concerned about not violating patient privacy and maintaining the doctor-patient relationship.
But a doctor can provide patient counseling that can carry a level of influence with the older patient that may far exceed that of the children. And a physician can check for medical problems like vision or medication issues. So, seeking the help of Dad’s doctor is probably wise.
Be prepared for the older driver to be reluctant to discuss driving with his physician. He may fear that the doctor may report him to the licensing authority. (In Pennsylvania, doctors are supposed to report persons diagnosed as having a condition that could impair the ability to drive. Ultimately, it is the Department of Transportation, not the doctor, which makes the ultimate decision on whether to impose license restrictions.)
Here are some additional ideas for children who are struggling with this issue:
Schedule a driving evaluation. Some communities offer Driver Evaluation and Training programs for older or disabled drivers. Check with your local health system or your state licensing agency to find one near you. You can also check on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety web site to find out about testing options in your state.
Avoid tricks. Experts tend to recommend against using tricks – like hiding keys or disabling Dad’s car. Here is what the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) says on this subject: “It is better to maintain a sense of trust in your relationship, being honest and persistent. Encourage the person to make a decision to reduce or stop driving as appropriate. Be aware that persons who lose the privilege of driving often feel lonely or anxious because they have fewer opportunities to be with friends or involved in activities.”
Write your state licensing agency. As a last resort, family members and others can notify their state licensing agency (e.g. PennDOT) of their concerns. Drivers identified through these letters may be asked to submit medical information. Write a detailed letter regarding your observations and the driver’s specific medical impairment(s). The letter must also include your name and contact information. For Pennsylvania drivers this letter can be mailed to: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, P.O. Box 68682, Harrisburg, PA 17106-8682. Reports submitted to PennDOT are confidential.
It may help reassure the older driver to know that it may be possible to obtain a restricted license rather than completely lose their driving privilege. In Pennsylvania a “graduated license” can be obtained that allows the senior to continue driving subject to certain limitations. PennDOT describes a graduated license as a type of license somewhere between full privilege and no privilege. For example, PennDOT offers a low vision restricted license to drivers with vision between 20/70 and 20/100. These drivers are limited to driving during daylight hours on roads other than freeways. PennDOT may also limit these drivers to driving within a certain geographic area as determined on a case-by-case basis.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation offers a free booklet
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation also has an Older Driver Information Center
Roadwise RX (This is a free online tool from the American Automobile Association designed to allow you to record your list of medications in one central location, and to receive personalized feedback about how drug side effects and interactions between medications may impact your safety behind the wheel).
Consumer Reports has a list of Best Cars for Older Drivers.
DRIVER REFRESHER COURSES:
The following agencies conduct state approved classroom training courses for mature drivers. There are no written or practical driving tests required. The course fees are moderate, but vary with each agency:
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Contact the AARP state office at 225 Market Street, Harrisburg, PA 17101; (717) 238-2277 or via the Web site at www.aarp.org.
American Automobile Association. Contact your local AAA office for availability or via the Web site at www.aaa.com.
Seniors for Safe Driving. Call 1-800-559-4880 or via the Web site at www.sfsd-pa.com for availability
[This is an update of an article that was originally published in April 2014 on the Marshall, Parker and Weber blog].