Keeping Older Drivers Safe

Driving is often a key to our independence. With our keys comes the ability to get to the places we need to go—the grocery store, the pharmacy, the doctor, a friend’s house or the movies.

It can be traumatic to a senior to think about giving up their keys. So what do you do when you have concerns about a loved one’s driving? How do you determine if he is still safe on the road? How do you start a conversation? How do they get to the places they need to go if they can no longer drive?

Are They Still Safe?

Remember that older drivers are not necessarily unsafe drivers, and many drivers continue to drive safely well into their older years. If you are worried about a loved one’s driving, keep an eye out for signs of declining ability—repeated fender benders, dents and dings, complaints of being honked at, feeling stressed while driving or getting lost on familiar routes.

If you are concerned, it may be a good idea to take a ride with your loved one. Is he paying attention to traffic signals and signs? How is her reaction time? Does he seem comfortable behind the wheel or would some driving aids (like a rearview mirror adapter or swivel chair) help?

Older drivers can also use self-assessment tools, like the Self-Rating Driver Tool and Interactive Driver Evaluation offered online by SeniorDrivingaaa.com. These self-assessments can help drivers gauge their own driving ability and get a sense of how safe they are. A professional evaluation performed by a trained driving evaluator or an occupational therapist, may be helpful as well. SeniorDrivingaaa.com can connect you to local evaluators and many local hospitals also offer evaluations.

What Should You Do if You Have Concerns?

Sometimes a driver’s abilities have declined, but not to the point where she should stop driving. Suggesting your loved one limit her driving to safer situations (such as driving only during daylight hours, avoiding rush-hour traffic or limiting herself to familiar neighborhoods and routes) can be enough to ensure everyone’s safety. Taking a refresher driving course can be a good idea too. AARP has a SMART Driver Course that can help drivers update their skills

If things have gotten to the point where you feel it’s safest to have her stop driving, it may be time to approach her with your thoughts. Remember, your loved one may have an emotional reaction, and you may have to have multiple discussions before she truly understands that it’s no longer safe to drive.

Roberta Habowski, Area Agency on Aging 1-B’s mobility project manager, offered some tips on starting the conversation.

  • One-On-One Conversations Are Best. Habowski suggested thinking carefully about who in the family may get the best response. Research shows that older adults are most likely to accept input on their driving from their spouse; followed by their adult children and then their doctor. “The most outspoken family member is not necessarily the right choice,” Habowski said. “And avoid structuring it like an intervention. Too many voices are going to make your loved one feel defensive, and they’re not going to be able to really hear your true concerns.” Habowski emphasized that the most effective conversations take place privately, with the person your loved one would be most open to listening to.
  • Stick to a Soft Approach. An approach that keeps compassion at the forefront and leads with “I” statements rather that “you” statements may also help your loved one shift away from a defensive position. Habowski recommended being specific about what you’ve observed and then voicing your concerns. It might be, “Mom, last time we drove together, I noticed that changing lanes seemed challenging. How are you feeling about your driving? Are there things that have gotten more difficult? I want to make sure no one gets hurt.”
  • What About the Doctor? Habowski said your loved one’s doctor could be an ally but may be more inclined to get involved in a decision regarding your loved one’s driving if there are specific medical conditions or limitations involved (vision, cognition, medications or physical limitations). Otherwise, he or she may simply make a recommendation for a driving evaluation.
  • Allow Them Space to Grieve. “Giving up the keys can be a very emotional transition,” Habowski said. “Your loved one may be going through something very similar to grief. They might feel anger, sadness or try to bargain before finally coming to acceptance.” Habowski suggests listening openly to feelings and being prepared to offer lots of empathy and understanding.
  • Make Sure They Have Plenty of Support. Keep in mind that help and additional support will be needed after your loved one stops driving. Work together to create a mobility plan that helps ensure he will still be able to get everywhere he wants to go. Mobility plans can enlist the help of friends, family and neighbors and may also include local transportation services geared specifically for older adults.

Additional Resources

The State of Michigan’s Safe Driver Smart Options website offers information for older drivers and their families. The Area Agency on Aging 1-B also offers a transportation concierge service, called myride2, that offers mobility counseling to seniors and their families to help prepare them for driving retirement and find transportation options. Check with your local Area Agency on Aging to see if there are similar programs close to you. Visit eldercare.acl.gov to find the agency closest to you or call 800-677-1116.

This blog post is courtesy of the Area Agency on Aging 1-B, a nonprofit responsible for serving more than 700,000 people 60 and older in Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair and Washtenaw counties. By providing community-based services from meals to in-home care, the Area Agency on Aging 1-B enables older adults and adults with disabilities to maintain their health and independence in their homes. More information is available by calling the AAA 1-B Information and Assistance Telephone line at (800) 852-7795 or visiting www.aaa1b.org. We’ll be partnering with AAA 1-B on our Midlife Map series. Their experts will provide monthly tips geared toward the “sandwich generation” – people in midlife facing the complicated juggling act of caring for children and older parents at the same time.

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Photo credit: People Images

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