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When Should the Elderly Hand Over Their Keys?

Consider these scenarios:

    • An elderly man runs through a red light and says he didn’t see it.
    • An elderly woman gets on the freeway, cruising along at 35 mph in the passing lane and wonders why everyone is honking their horns.
    • One night, an aging relative calls for help in getting home from the movies after getting lost in what used to be a familiar neighborhood.

All of these incidents are signs that it may be time for an elderly person to stop driving. This is a difficult decision because many Americans equate their cars with independence and self-sufficiency. But as people age, their driving skills can deteriorate, especially with the onset of some medical conditions. So how do you know when it’s time to take away a license and what is the best way to break the news?

Familiarize yourself with the signs of unsafe driving and see if your loved one qualifies as a danger on the roads. Some indicators are: driving at inappropriate speeds — either too fast or too slow, wavering between lanes, vision or hearing problems, difficulty in making turns, a slowing of response time, and a string of tickets.

Other signs include frequently getting lost, becoming drowsy from medication, ignoring mechanical problems with the car, having difficulty in judging distances, and losing the ability to concentrate while driving.

If family members believe that a loved one shouldn’t be behind the wheel, they must decide the best way to break the news. There are a variety of strategies to let an aging relative know that he or she must give up the car keys. For example:

      • Decide who is the best person to serve as the main communicator with the aging relative. People are sometimes more receptive to a message if its delivered by a person in authority, such as a doctor or family lawyer. Other options include spouses, adult children or caregivers.
      • Plan what you’re going to say to the relative about giving up their driving privileges. This is a sensitive topic and a huge life change, so you need to approach it with care and to stay positive. Some insurance companies have scripts that can help in talking to older drivers.
      • Another way to overcome opposition is to get an independent driving evaluation done by state inspectors. Many state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) will conduct field tests to assess driving capabilities.
      • You can also hire a driving rehabilitation specialist to provide a private evaluation. These professionals evaluate drivers based on factors such as medical history, medications taken, visual acuity, range of motion as it relates to vehicle control, strength and coordination.

Many states also have tougher regulations that can result in older drivers losing their licenses. In Illinois, for example, drivers who reach the age of 81 must have their licenses renewed every two years (instead of four) and all renewal applicants over the age of 75 must pass a driving test. In other states, all drivers 62 and older must take a vision test when they renew their licenses.

In extreme instances, families dealing with recalcitrant older drivers have hidden car keys or disabled their cars to keep them off the roads.

Once you’ve gotten an aging relative to agree to hand over the car keys, provide information on alternative forms of transportation nearby. In many U.S. communities, local bus service or taxi cabs can fill some of the need and there are volunteer and religious groups that sometimes provide rides to services and doctor’s appointments.

If all your efforts fail to sway an aging driver to get off the road, there are some suggestions for helping them be less of a threat to other drivers. First, have them avoid driving at night and have them only drive to familiar locations. Also, encourage them to avoid freeways and interstate highways.

Finally, AARP sponsors programs to teach older drivers how to compensate for vision and hearing problems. (Click here for more information.) And a driver rehabilitation specialist also can work with an aging relative to improve their driving skills. Another benefit of taking these driver safety classes is that successfully completing them might mean a reduction of 5 percent to 10 percent on your relative’s car insurance.

Older Driver Statistics

According to the AARP:

      • Drivers age 55 and older, compared with drivers aged 30 to 54, are involved in more accidents per mile driven. The number of miles must be taken into account in order to accurately compare older and younger drivers.
      • The number of accidents per mile rises sharply at about age 75.
      • The traffic violation committed most often by drivers aged 50 and older is failure to observe right-of-way.
      • The second most often committed traffic violation by drivers aged 50 and older is making an improper left turn. The most common reasons for this problem are failure to obey left turn signs and signals, improper positioning of the vehicle, and misjudging the speed of oncoming vehicles.
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