In the 29 years that I handled personal injury lawsuits, most of them involved car accidents. I represented injured people hundreds of times. In cases where a victim had been hit by an older driver who should never have been behind the wheel in the first place, I always wondered why no one had addressed their unsafe driving and taken their car keys away. Surely their adult children, spouse or friends must have realized that it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt, right?
According to researchers at the University of Colorado, elders, their doctors and their family members tend to avoid the dreaded driving discussion for as long as they can. The study found that physicians felt they were usually the ones to begin driving discussions with their senior patients, but only once there was a change in their health that affected driving, a safety concern reported by a family member, or another red flag like a car crash. Unless physicians inquire about driving specifically (many don’t) or seniors self-report issues they’re having (a rarity), then family members are often the ones who must spearhead this effort.
Recognizing and Acting on Signs of Unsafe Driving
If you suspect that an aging loved one just isn’t safe behind the wheel anymore, I strongly encourage you to intervene. Most seniors who are losing their ability to drive safely either don’t recognize it or refuse to face the thought of giving up their independence, mobility and control.
Losing the ability to drive a car is a life-changing event, as it is very difficult to maintain one’s own care at home without transportation. Denial is a very common reaction to the early warning signs that an elder is becoming a dangerous driver. This can occur both among seniors, who really don’t want to have this privilege taken from them, and their adult children, who must then find alternate forms of transportation for Mom or Dad.
Do not hesitate if you are noticing warning signs that an aging loved one is no longer a safe or reliable driver, such as straddling lanes, excessive nervousness, getting lost while driving, and sudden, unnecessary stops or accelerations. Use these tips to address this emotionally charged and difficult issue with tact.
Tips for Discussing Driving With a Senior
- Approach the subject respectfully and at the best time of day for your loved one. Ask if it is a good time to sit down and talk about something that has been on your mind lately.
- Bring up the issue of unsafe driving while expressing care and concern for how difficult it must be to even talk about it. If your loved one resists the subject, gently insist that it must be addressed.
- Promise that you will do whatever you can to help improve their driving and keep them mobile.
- There are a number of senior health issues that impact driving. Encourage your loved one to see their doctor to check for any physical and/or mental health issues that may be interfering with their ability to drive safely. In some cases, minor interventions, such as a change in medication or a new glasses prescription, may be able to improve a senior’s functional abilities enough to help them regain some of their driving skills. If you can, accompany your loved one to the doctor to ensure this issue is addressed.
- If the doctor determines that your loved one is no longer safe behind the wheel, present a strong, united front with them regarding “driving retirement.” Be gentle yet firm and focus on the importance of keeping your loved one and other members of the community safe.
- Research alternative forms of transportation in your loved one’s community. Options may be limited in smaller towns and rural areas, but family members, friends, neighbors or church members may be willing to help provide a lift here and there. Local transit resources, public transportation and ride-sharing services are excellent alternatives for seniors who are still capable of planning outings, sticking to a schedule and navigating their community. Be careful about promising to personally provide all rides on the condition that they agree to stop driving, though. Errands, doctor’s appointments and outings can add up to become a costly and time-intensive commitment.
- Try to present transportation alternatives in an encouraging way that allows your loved one to maintain as much autonomy as possible. Work with them to find different options that can help them maintain their existing schedule and lifestyle.
Driving cessation is a contentious topic for many families, but the earlier it is addressed, the better. Do your best to approach your loved one with understanding, but don’t be afraid to stand your ground. Acting on this concern after an accident occurs is akin to applying sunscreen after one has already gotten sunburned—it might minimize the risk for future injury, but the damage has already been done.