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When to Put the Brakes On Elderly Drivers

Are elderly drivers safe? Yes — for the most part. The same can be said for teen drivers.

Do driving skills of elderly drivers decline with age? Yes, but just like other age groups, driving skills vary from one elderly person to another. Telling elderly drivers that it may be time to stop driving can be one of the most difficult milestones for caregivers. Driving represents freedom and independence for the elderly — the ability to visit friends, go to the movies and shop — without relying on anyone else.

Revoking an elderly person's drivers license over a certain age is not an acceptable solution. Elderly driving skills vary widely at all ages. It is unfair to punish most elderly drivers for problems caused by only a few drivers.

When the question of declining driving abilities becomes personal, the issues involved with elderly driving are very emotional. Elderly drivers might get defensive — even angry — when the subject of their driving abilities is raised. Thus, include the elderly person in the decision-making process if at all possible, rather than dictate a decision to them. It can also be very helpful if both you and your elderly loved one discuss the matter together with family members, doctors, and other people they respect, such as clergy and friends. But, despite your best efforts, you may still have to make the decision to stop for them for their own safety and the safety of other drivers and pedestrians.

How does aging affect the abilities of elderly drivers?

Safe elderly drivers require the complex coordination of many different skills. The physical and mental changes that accompany aging can diminish the abilities of elderly drivers. These include:

Taken separately, none of these changes automatically means that elderly drivers should stop. But caregivers need to regularly evaluate the elderly person's driving skills to determine if they need to alter driving habits or stop driving altogether.

A checklist on safe elderly driving

Watch for telltale signs of decline in the elderly person's driving abilities. Do they:

If the answer to one or more of these questions is "yes," you should explore whether medical issues are affecting their driving skills.

Medical issues to consider

Caregivers need to know if the elderly person:

Adapting to changes

Driving is not necessarily an all-or-nothing activity. Some programs exist to help elderly drivers adjust their driving to changes in their physical condition:

AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons) sponsors the 55-Alive Mature Driver Program, which helps older people deal with issues such as how to compensate for vision problems associated with aging. And, the Association for Driver Rehabilitation offers referrals to specialists who teach people with disabilities, including those associated with aging, how to improve their driving.

There are many ways for elderly drivers to adjust so they are not a danger to themselves or others. Among them are:

Other forms of transportation

Encourage your loved one to rely more on public transportation. This will reduce their time behind the wheel and help prepare them for the day when they can no longer drive. Many cities offer special discounts for seniors on buses and trains, and senior centers and community service agencies often provide special transportation alternatives.

How to get them to stop

If you feel strongly that your parent cannot drive safely, you have little choice but to get them to stop driving. If they agree without an argument, wonderful. If not, you have several options:

Related Resources

AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) offers the highly recommended Driver Safety Program for older people. To find a class near you, visit AARP's Driver Safety page online, call toll-free at 1-888-227-7669, or write to them at 601 E Street NW, Washington, DC 20049.

The Association for Driver Rehabilitation offers referrals to professionals trained to help people with disabilities, including those associated with aging. Visit The Association for Driver Rehabilitation online and click on Directory in the left hand menu, or contact them at: P.O. Box 49, Edgerton, Wisconsin 53534, 1-608-884-8833.

The USAA Educational Foundation, AARP, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration developed a very informative booklet, "Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully." (To view it online, click here on elderly drivers.) It describes many of the physical changes associated with aging, and includes tips on coping with them so that older people can remain safe drivers.

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