Is It Time for Your Parents to Hand over the Keys?

From assessing their abilities to having the talk about whether it's time to get off the road, the process isn’t easy — but it is important.

By Meredith Heagney
steering wheel


Older Drivers Are Not Inherently Dangerous

It’s a common misconception that seniors cause a lot of crashes — but it's just not true, says Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA. Fatal crash rates do increase starting at age 70 and are highest in drivers 85 and older, but research shows it’s not because older people are causing more crashes. They’re simply less likely to survive them because they’re more likely to get injured and have medical complications. 

In fact, data shows older drivers get an unfair rap, Nelson adds. They’re actually among the safest drivers on the road because of certain behaviors. “They’re more likely to buckle their seat belt, they’re less likely to speed and they’re less likely to drive impaired by alcohol than any other age group on the road.” 

Factors That Affect Senior Drivers

All that said, it’s undeniable that certain vulnerabilities tend to emerge with age. Vision and hearing often decline, as does reaction time. Medical conditions can affect driving ability, from arthritis making steering harder to uncontrolled diabetes causing a seizure behind the wheel. People with early-stage dementia might not know they have the condition but will find navigating, even to familiar destinations, difficult. 

Older people are also more likely to be on prescription medications, which can have adverse effects on awareness and reaction times. 

Nelson recommends adult children ride along with the older driver and not say anything to help or correct; just observe. Take note of whether the driver is obeying laws, driving too fast or slow or getting honked at often. Signs of confusion or difficulty controlling the car are also red flags.

When should you be especially concerned? When your loved one’s car has several new dings or scratches, if they’ve been involved in fender benders or bigger crashes, or if they’re getting tickets or warnings from law enforcement. 

Too many of these tough discussions are happening after a crash — if at all. AAA research found that more than 80 percent of older drivers say they’ve never talked to family or their doctors about their driving ability; of those who have, 15 percent only did so after a crash or traffic infraction. 

That means it’s up to adult children — that’s you — to initiate the talk. 

Keys to the Conversation

Talk to your loved one early. This keeps the stress down because it’s not during an actual crisis and you’re not asking them to limit their driving in the near term. (AAA has an agreement that adult children and parents can fill out before driving becomes an issue, to determine how they’ll discuss the topic later.) 

In real life, it may not work perfectly, but the conversation can still be effective. Sherry Kolodziejczak, an occupational therapist in Huntsville, Alabama, evaluates senior drivers regularly and works with their families to either help them drive safely or get alternative transportation. She also teaches driver safety courses for AARP and helps seniors complete the CarFit program in order to help adjust their cars for safety. 

Kolodziejczak recommends a gentle but direct opening line, such as, “Mom, you’ve always told me health and safety come first. So now that you’re older and on these medications, let’s talk about your feelings regarding driving," as opposed to, "You’re 70, and you shouldn’t be driving anymore."

Another good way to broach the subject is to talk about some of the changes in driving today in both driver behavior (such as people on cellphones or speeding in high-powered cars) and car technology (such as rearview cameras and wireless systems). This can turn into a discussion of how that older driver feels about getting around in today’s environment. 

Once you’ve started, here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • Don’t make it an intervention. Keep the conversation one-on-one to prevent your loved one from feeling ambushed. Do you have multiple siblings and you’re all worried about Dad? Designate one person to broach the subject with him. 
  • Focus on facts. Talk about specific limitations the older driver is dealing with and how those issues can affect driving. Don’t make generalizations about older drivers or jump to conclusions. 
  • Bring in a professional. Laypeople don’t know how to assess whether an older driver is safe on the road and neither can most primary care physicians. It’s best to enlist the help of an occupational therapist. This type of professional can give your loved one a formal driving assessment informed by expertise. The therapist can often recommend accommodations, such as an extended rearview mirror for someone who has trouble turning his neck, that can keep the person on the road longer. Additionally, the therapist can tell you when if it is time for the older driver to stop driving. 
  • Offer support. Recognize that it’s upsetting for many people to think about not being able to drive. Tell your loved one you’ll do everything you can to keep getting them to the places and events they want to attend — whether that means organizing rides from loved ones, setting them up with a ride-sharing app or helping them use public transportation. 
  • Don’t assume you have to take away the keys. Many age-related driving deficiencies can be corrected. Medications can be changed, and adaptive devices can be installed in cars.

And if the conversation goes poorly and you think your loved one is a danger on the roads? As a last resort, you can refer the driver to your state’s department of motor vehicles, which will review the driver’s record and might require a formal evaluation to determine if the license should be restricted or revoked. Also, be aware of the laws in your state regarding older drivers; some states require more frequent license renewal and vision tests after a certain age. 


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