How old is too old to drive safely?
Have you ever driven up behind a slow, elderly driver and vowed to quit driving before you reach that age? I have, and now I am that age.
I thought my mid-seventies would be when I’d give up driving. But that time came and went and I continued to renew my license. I enjoyed the independence driving afforded me. Besides, my driving habits were good, my attention stayed on focus, and my reaction times were fine. So, I happily rolled along into my 80’s.
Then I heard about Britain’s 97-year-old Prince Philip’s auto accident. I remembered my earlier vow to quit driving before I became “too old to drive.” Then my next thought was, “Could that happen to me?”
My heart sank. Was it “time” to seriously think about giving up driving?
Accidents Involving Older Drivers
When to stop driving poses a real dilemma for families with their older drivers. Just mentioning the idea can cause great anxiety for all sides.
Some of us have been driving for 60 or 70 years. That’s a tough habit to break. A lot of us believe we are still as good a driver as, if not better than, our younger friends and relatives.
Sadly, though, the statistics tell a different story. Prince Philip was fortunate that no one was more seriously injured, or worse.
AAA’s Senior Driving Resources reports fatal crash rates increase beginning at age 75 and rise sharply after age 80. Older drivers tend to be more fragile than younger, healthier drivers. As a result, their fatality rates are 17 times higher than those of 25- to 64-year-old drivers, according to AAA.
How Does Aging Affect Driving?
Hearing and vision problems, slower reflexes, chronic illness, medications and medication interactions can all contribute to an older person’s inability to drive safely, according to experts.
“While old age alone is not a reason to stop driving, age-related physical and cognitive challenges such as slower reflexes or vision troubles can make driving difficult — even dangerous — especially past age 80 or beyond.”
Often, the changes occur so slowly that we don’t realize how the aging process may have lessened our reaction time, how our senses are not as acute as in years past, or how arthritis can limit our ability to turn far enough to judge traffic situations.
Many of these aging-related factors can affect driving safety, according to AgingCare.com:
Vision and Hearing
Adequate vision and hearing are critical to safe driving and should be checked regularly.
We have to be able to hear horns honking and sirens approaching. Cataracts, glaucoma, and general declining vision can contribute to driving errors.
Some older drivers compensate for their declining vision by only driving during daylight hours and/or in good weather. Eventually, other factors like longer focusing time and decreased peripheral vision may make it difficult to drive even in the best of conditions.
Age-related muscle weakening and decreased flexibility can hinder our motor skills. Worsening motor skills can decrease our reaction time. We may not be fast enough to hit the brakes or turn the steering wheel in time to avoid a collision.
Medical Conditions and Medications
Even just not sleeping well at night can leave us drowsy and impair driving reflexes. More serious conditions can be at least as dangerous, and often more so. Some medications to treat our conditions can cause dizziness, drowsiness, and other side effects in older adults. Interactions between medications, including over-the-counter medications, can cause unexpected side effects and impair older drivers.
It’s important to stay up to date on hearing, vision, and general physical exams. Let your doctor know about any problems you may have with driving. Your doctor could be an ally in your effort to keep driving.
Is There Any Hope to Keep Driving?
One of my friends was 92 when her kids took away her car keys, just to preserve their own sanity. They were so worried she would cause an accident, they felt they had no choice.
It’s difficult for a family to have to make that kind of decision. Sometimes a third party can help make the choice easier. The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists offers evaluations to determine an older adult’s ability to drive:
“A driver evaluation generally consists of a clinical assessment and a behind-the-wheel assessment. The evaluation process generally includes tests of physical function, vision, perception, attention, motor function, and reaction time, in addition to actual driving performance tests.”
Evaluation results can determine whether the individual has the ability to drive independently or at all; whether customized driver training or rehabilitation is required; and if there is a need for adaptive driving equipment or vehicle modifications.
SeniorDriving.AAA.com offers a Self-Rating Tool for older drivers, as well as senior driver resources. The resources offer tips on features to look for when car shopping for older drivers, limiting distractions while driving, keeping important parts of the body fit for driving, and more.
How to Stay Independent Without Driving?
The ability to get to doctor appointments, grocery shop, and visit family and friends helps keep us independent. Unfortunately, taking the car away can eliminate these important activities. As a result, losing important connections can lead to isolation, depression, and loneliness in older adults.
I’m fortunate that my husband is still a competent driver. But taxis, Ubers and catching rides with friends may add a new dimension to my social life. In addition, Eldercare Locator provides a nationwide service that connects older Americans with local support resources, including transportation services. Also, the American Public Transportation Association maintains a list of links to thousands of transit agencies across the United States. Meeting new people with similar circumstances may lead to new friendships.
If you do make the decision to stop driving, have a plan in order. Enlist friends and family members to help stay active and participating in your usual activities. Also look into delivery services in your area for groceries, pharmacy, and other shops like pet supplies.
Some people give up driving but keep their cars, relying on the kindness of trustworthy family members or friends to drive them in their own vehicles. Before allowing another person drive your car, be sure to check with the auto insurance company that all drivers and passengers are covered.
Decision to Stop Driving
Many states make the decision for the older driver by requiring testing for drivers after a certain age. Caring.com’s easy-to-use map lists age-related driving rules in each state.
For those of us who are not in states that test older drivers, the decision to keep or give up driving lies with us. It might help to discuss our decision with trusted family and friends. Sometimes an outside perspective can bring clarity to an emotional quandary.
I haven’t had any fender benders, close calls, or other indicators that I may not be as safe a driver as I used to be. But it has become difficult to move my right foot from the gas pedal to the brake due to back and hip problems. So my body has made the decision for me to stop driving.
I’m grateful the decision was made for me, because I’m not sure I’d choose to stop driving.
Have you had to face the dilemma of when to stop driving?
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