In the 29 years that I handled personal injury lawsuits, most of them were 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.

According to researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, elders, their doctors and their family members tend to avoid the dreaded driving discussion until certain signs like straddling lanes, excessive nervousness, and sudden, unnecessary stops or accelerations start to appear. Unless physicians inquire about driving specifically (many don’t) or seniors self-report issues they’re having (a rarity), then family members must be the ones to spearhead this effort.

If you’ve noticed 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 lifechanging 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 themselves, who really don’t want to have this privilege taken from them, and their adult children, who must then find Mom and Dad alternate forms of transportation.

If you are noticing warning signs that an aging loved one is no longer a safe or reliable driver, don’t hesitate. Try these tips to handle this emotionally charged and difficult issue.

Tips for Discussing Driving with a Senior

  1. Approach the subject respectfully and at the best time of day for your loved one. Ask if it’s a good time to sit down and talk about something that’s been on your mind lately.
  2. Bring up the issue of driving while you express 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.
  3. Promise that you will do what you can to help improve their driving and keep them mobile.
  4. Encourage them to see a 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.
  5. If the doctor determines that your loved one is no longer safe behind the wheel, present a strong, united front with them on the issue of giving up the car keys. Be gentle yet firm and focus on the importance of keeping your loved one and other members of the community safe.
  6. 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 huge commitment both time-wise and financially.
  7. 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 schedule and lifestyle as much as possible.

Driving cessation is always a contentious topic, 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.