Seniors and Driving - When To Take The Car Keys

As the country returns to some sense of normalcy following the pandemic shutdown, Americans are hitting the roads in record numbers, seemingly flexing the wings of freedom that were clipped for over a year. However driving, if not practiced, can lead to a deterioration of that skill that can have deadly results. And no group loses that skill more rapidly than seniors.

Is it time to take the keys?

Now we have heard the arguments that teens are responsible for more accidents than seniors, which is true if looking at the numbers. But when you examine the miles driven by these two groups, mile per mile, seniors are involved in far more accidents than any other age group.

Another statistic we have heard cited is that deaths and injuries for elderly drivers have fallen significantly since the 1970s but again, this is more of a function of better safety equipment on vehicles than an increase in the skills of the elderly who still use their cars. Still, even minor accidents can have a deadly outcome among seniors due to their susceptibility to injuries, especially chest trauma.

According to police records, fatal crashes begin to increase significantly for drivers 70-74 years of age and are highest among those over 85 years of age. Of this group, males by far, have higher rates of fatalities. Seniors are also responsible for the high number of crashes into businesses, homes, and parking lots.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, numerous studies have also shown an increased risk of elderly drivers in fatal car crashes at intersections. The accidents that seniors are more prone to include left-turn crashes, accidents at stop signs, and yield signs, with accidents at traffic signals lagging far behind.

Basic Mistakes May Be A Sign

A cursory search of car accidents involving seniors over the past few months show just how their limited skills are responsible for very preventable accidents.

Loss of reaction time
  • In Johnston, Rhode Island, A car crashed through the storefront of a Johnston business Tuesday, according to Police Chief Joseph Razza. The car was parked in front of Supreme Star Fitness & Cafe on Atwood Avenue. Razza said the driver had mistakenly pressed on the accelerator instead of the brake, propelling the car forward into the store’s glass window. Owner Daniel Ortiz said he was shocked when he heard the crash from the other side of the building. “I ran up here and I saw the window was smashed and a car inside, I would say it was about 80% inside,” he recalled. “It was an older gentleman, and I didn’t really want to get mad at him because people make mistakes.”

  • In Indiana, an elderly woman crashed her car into Corrado’s Market. Around 3:30 p.m., the unidentified woman in her late 70s drove a 2015 Toyota Camry through the glass storefront before the car came to a stop completely inside the store on Berdan Avenue, the Wayne Police Department said. No one was hit by the vehicle, and the driver, who was temporarily unable to exit the car, complained of pain but refused medical attention, police said.

  • In Illinois, Matteson police said an elderly woman drove into a Starbucks Monday afternoon. Authorities responded about 3:53 p.m. to a call of a vehicle into a building in the 4800-block of West 211th Street, Matteson Police Chief Michael Jones said. Two people were sent to an area hospital with "minor" injuries related to broken glass, Jones said. Police said the woman, who is over the age of 70, accelerated into the coffee shop instead of hitting the brake.

  • Two people were hospitalized Thursday night after a car collided with another vehicle and part of a Peoria pharmacy. Emergency crews were called around 7:15 p.m. to the CVS in the 6800 block of N. Pear Tree Lane, near War Memorial Drive. Peoria Police said an elderly woman fell asleep at the wheel, her foot then hit the gas, propelling her vehicle into another car and a pillar outside the CVS. “The driver of the striking vehicle was transported to a local hospital for evaluation. The occupant of the parked vehicle was also transported to a hospital with minor injuries,” Dotson said. The crash remains under investigation by Peoria Police.

The above is just a very small sample of scores of such accidents that involve seniors and property damage over just the past few months.

When it comes to pedestrians, being alert to their presence is also an expectation of driving a vehicle. However, pedestrian-involved accidents disproportionately involve seniors. Statistics find that seniors 85 years and above had the highest rate of pedestrian-involved deaths of all age groups (4.4 per 100,000).

Physical Issues Increase

Why are they involved in so many of these types of accidents? The answer lies in the statistics of aging. Let's check them out:

  • Fifty percent of older adults and 80 percent of those in their 70s suffer from maladies such as arthritis, causing joints to become inflamed resulting in limitations in turning, flexing, and twisting, necessary skills when it comes to navigating the roadway.

  • As we age, our muscles become weaker and our range of motion becomes more limited affecting the ability to grasp the steering wheel, use the brake and accelerator properly, and reach or open windows while maintaining focus on the road.

  • Over 75 percent of drivers over 65 report using one or more medications but astonishingly, less than one-third of these drivers report that they were aware of the side effects of the drugs they were using.

And as we cited earlier, mile for mile, fatal crash rates increase beginning at age 75 and then rise dramatically after the age of 80. In fact, fatalities among this group are 17 times higher than those ages 25 – 65. Much of this can be attributed to the fragility of their bodies.

Given what we know, wouldn’t it make sense for family members to confront their loved ones about what they are seeing and their concerns for them? Well, it may not be as easy as it sounds, in fact, it appears to be downright difficult.

A Hard Fact To Face

In a study reported by the American Association of Retired People (AARP), they found that adult children under the age of 65 were unwilling to address the subject with their parents even though they had concerns. Astonishingly, 40 percent of this group felt more comfortable discussing funeral arrangements with their parents than broaching the subject of taking the keys.

A hard discussion to have.

In a national telephone survey about this subject, 29 percent felt a doctor should be the one to make the decision that a parent should not be driving, 25 percent felt it was a family matter and 23 percent felt that the government should be involved in this decision. Only 16 percent thought that seniors should be allowed to make this decision.

And what about the seniors themselves? In a similar survey, nearly a third felt that they would prefer if their family was involved in this matter while 26 percent felt that they should be the ones making this decision. About 20 percent felt that a doctor would be the one to address this and only 10 percent wanted the government involved.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cites several signs that may indicate it is time to re-evaluate the driving privilege for a senior:

  1. Drifts into other lanes, straddle lanes, or make sudden lane changes

  2. Ignores or misses stop signs and traffic signals

  3. Gets easily confused in traffic

  4. Brakes or stops abruptly without cause

  5. Accelerates suddenly without reason

  6. Coasts to a near stop amid moving traffic

  7. Presses simultaneously on the brake and accelerator while driving

  8. Has difficulty seeing pedestrians, objects, and other vehicles

  9. Is increasingly nervous when driving

  10. Drives at significantly slower than the posted speed

  11. Backs up after missing an exit or road

  12. Difficulty reacting quickly as they process multiple images or sounds

  13. Problems with neck flexibility

  14. Gets lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places

  15. Fails to use the turn signal, or keeps the signal on without changing lanes

  16. Increased "close calls" and "near misses"

  17. Has been issued two or more traffic tickets or warnings in the past two years

  18. Dents and scrapes on the car or fences, mailboxes, garage doors, and curbs

If you are concerned about a senior’s ability to drive, have a conversation with them. The first step may be to recommend to them a driving course to refresh their skills. AARP offers a variety of driver safety courses nationwide. Visit this AARP site for more information.

But what if their driving skills have regressed so much that even a refresher course may not be able to help? It then becomes time to discuss giving up the car with your loved one. This task can be extremely difficult so it’s understandable why family members feel more comfortable discussing funeral plans than taking the keys.

Having the Discussion

When the time comes, don't treat the senior like a teenage child and take the keys as a "punishment". Do you remember when you first starting driving and you did something wrong and your parents took away the keys? Even though it was temporary, do you recall how it felt to have that independence taken away, albeit briefly?

Protecting all concerned

Compassion must be part of "the discussion". Imagine a senior, who may already be struggling with the loss of memory, physical capabilities, and eyesight. They may be selling their home and moving into assisted living. Friends and spouses are dying. For most, the car and the ability to travel is the only semblance of independence and normalcy that they can hold onto. Now someone tells them that this part of their lives will be taken away, too?

If this discussion becomes necessary, we suggest having a plan in place before sitting down with them. Let’s look at what you need to do;

  • Come prepared with the evidence. Now, this is not a court but having a case prepared to show evidence to the senior is the best way to go. Have a list of traffic tickets, accidents, damage to the vehicle, and even neighbors who may have witnessed unsafe driving. Be specific. Think of it this way, would you rather be the one to tell your loved one it’s time to stop, or should it be a judge in a court in front of the public and maybe even make headlines in the newspaper?

  • If you can’t do it, talk to a professional. Have a doctor write a prescription stating no driving, perhaps a local clergy could discuss if you find it too difficult.

  • Make of list of the cost-saving that giving up the keys would amount to. No gas, no oil changes, no insurance, etc.

  • Have a list of alternative transportation arrangements in place or a list of suggestions on how to maintain independence,

  • Explore home health care agencies, grocery delivery services, and meal delivery services that can help the senior stay independent.

The things we mentioned above are concrete steps, but what about the emotional content of the conversation? Try to take this approach:

  • Don’t play hardball and make accusations. Taking away the keys for some could be the "final straw" for the senior and send them into a bout of depression. Approach this conversation with empathy. Put yourself in their place and think about how would you feel.

  • Make sure other family members are involved with the conversation so the senior can see it is a family decision.

  • Be honest and treat the senior like an adult and not a child. Remember, sitting with you is the person that stood by your side decades earlier when you first picked up the keys, or when you had relationship problems or were sick. Make sure the conversation is adult to adult, no accusations, no finger-pointing, just talk about the truth and the dangers. Honesty, “We don’t want you to get hurt or to hurt others” is the best way to share your concerns.

  • Explain the alternatives and even involvement in a ride-sharing program that could help them meet others in a similar predicament. Getting old is not a sin, we will all be there and with age comes limitations. It’s a reality.

  • You could withdrawal the car slowly. For instance, no driving after dark, or in the rain. Stay off highways and no children or grandchildren in the car.

  • If you have tried every way to convince them that driving is no longer an option and yet they continue to try and drive, you may want to disable the car, especially if it is someone with dementia. Removing the battery cable or other electrical components gets the job done.

  • There could also be other issues besides age that could also be a reason to stop driving. Vision issues, side effects of medications (especially pain medications and benzodiazepines), heart problems such as tachycardia, pain, and even addiction could be a reason to take away the keys.

A Sense of Relief

Finally, we have spoken with many family members who had to go through this process with a loved one. After the keys were taken away, a sense of comfort was present not only for the family members but also for the seniors themselves. In fact, one family told us their mother said some months later, “I don’t know why I don’t do this earlier, I actually feel relieved."

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