When is it Time to Take the Keys?

We have received several requests to rerun our blog written earlier this year about the issue of seniors and when it should be time to discuss taking away the car keys. A number have clients have told us that their senior parents are doing more driving as a result of the lack of summer destination vacations due to the coronavirus, opting instead to take more rides and day trips to local parks and beaches rather than remain in the house. If this holds to be true, many may need to assess the driving skills of their older loved ones if they are indeed choosing to spend more time on the road. So let's go back to earlier in the year when we first published this blog.

Three women were seriously injured in Seekonk

It was January 2 into the new year when an elderly driver in Seekonk, Massachusetts backed into three women, pinning one under the car. According to one bystander, “He continued going backward and hit everybody and everything in his way.” All three women were seriously injured, the most serious injury occurring to the woman pinned underneath the vehicle.

“The woman under the car kept saying ‘take the car off me. Please have someone take the car off me,’” said another witness. According to yet another person, the driver "didn’t seem to have any concept of what just happened or what he had just done.”

Just days after the Seekonk crash, when the concern was raised yet again about the fitness of some elderly drivers to be on the roads, several older adults were heard calling a radio talk show citing a number of facts in their defense, one being that “teens are involved in far more crashes than seniors, so they should take their licenses away, too.”

This has been a statistic cited by seniors following nearly every one of these crashes, which, unfortunately, is misleading. Although the stat is true, if we just took the number of accidents teens are involved in, but the real truth in these numbers is when you factor in the mileage driven. When doing this, mile for mile, seniors are involved in far more crashes than any other age group.

Seniors are prone to left turn crashes

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

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 in parking lots (as witnessed in the Seekonk crash).

Here are some examples from the news in the southern New England area from 2019. Let's start in Rhode Island:

82 year old hits a Newport Creamery
  • Fire officials say a Smithfield senior caused significant damage to his home after he accidentally crashed into it with his car. According to a Smithfield Deputy Fire Chief, the elderly man’s foot became stuck between the accelerator and the brake while idling in his driveway, causing the car to shoot forward and slam into the corner of his Douglas Circle home.

  • The Newport Creamery on County Road was closed after a woman accidentally drove into the building. Barrington Police say the 82-year-old woman was backing out of a handicapped parking spot in front of the building when she shifted into drive and drove into the wall.

And now, Massachusetts:

  • A vehicle crashed into a 7-Eleven store Friday in Peabody leaving debris strewn across the store. Images from inside the Lynn Street store showed a glass door off its hinges, with its panels smashed, resting up against a display. The crash happened around 1 p.m.;

  • A woman suffered serious injuries after she was hit by a car driven by an 80-year-old woman in the Walmart parking lot in Salem. Police said the woman who was injured, a Swampscott mother of three, was trapped under a car as she was leaving the store (sounds eerily similar to the Seekonk accident). The elderly woman also struck three parked cars. One vehicle in the parking lot had heavy front-end damage while another had its bumper ripped off;

  • A car struck and damaged the 7-11 convenience store on Pleasant Street in Brockton when the driver accelerated instead of braking in the parking lot. The driver, an elderly woman, was reportedly uninjured. No customers or store employees were injured either;

  • An elderly scooter driver was hospitalized following a crash involving a motor vehicle in Douglas. Officers responding to reports of a pedestrian crash in the area of 81 Main St. found the 80-year-old man suffering from what appeared to be non-life-threatening injuries. A preliminary investigation suggests the driver of the vehicle was traveling westbound on Main Street when the scooter entered the lane and was struck from behind.

Finally, Connecticut:

  • A grocery store customer was injured when a woman drove through the front of a business and struck a man, according to Stratford police. An elderly driver was backing out of a parking space at Big Y World Class Market when she apparently hit the gas pedal instead of the brake. The woman then drove backwards into the store through an open garage-style door and hitting a man who was leaving the business with his wife;

  • Police said an elderly driver crashed his Subaru Outback through the front doors of a CVS located on West Main Street in Stamford around 4 p.m. There were no injuries, police said;

  • An 88-year-old woman is without a driver's license after police said she hit two people at an Ansonia grocery store. Police said the elderly woman was driving near the south entrance of the Stop & Shop on Division Street when she lost control and struck two pedestrians. Officers confirmed a 51-year-old woman had to have her leg amputated below the knee after being caught between the vehicle and a steel column. The second pedestrian, a 60-year-old man, sustained head, and facial injuries.

Watch the video below as an elderly driver smashes into a CVS pharmacy;

And 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). 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 reports 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 the concerns they have for them? Well, it may not be as easy as it sounds, in fact, it appears to be downright difficult.

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.

Taking the keys is a difficult 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.

How Do We Know It's Time?

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

  • Drifts into other lanes, straddle lanes or make sudden lane changes

  • Ignores or misses stop signs and traffic signals

  • Gets easily confused in traffic

  • Brakes or stops abruptly without cause

  • Accelerates suddenly without reason

  • Coasts to a near stop amid moving traffic

  • Presses simultaneously on the brake and accelerator while driving

  • Has difficulty seeing pedestrians, objects and other vehicles

  • Is increasingly nervous when driving

  • Drives at significantly slower than the posted speed

  • Backs up after missing an exit or road

  • Difficulty reacting quickly as they process multiple images or sounds

  • Problems with neck flexibility

  • Gets lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places

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

  • Increased "close calls" and "near misses"

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

  • Dents and scrapes on the car or on 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

Don't treat the senior like a teenage child and take the keys as a "punishment".

Think of it this way, 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?

Compassion must be part of "the discussion"

Now 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 must take place, we suggest having a plan in place before sitting down with them. Let’s look at what you need to do;

  1. 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?

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

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

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

  5. 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:

  1. 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.

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

  3. 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 about the dangers. Honesty, “We don’t want you to get hurt or to hurt others” is the best way to share your concerns.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

They can still maintain their independence

Finally, we have spoken with many family members who had to go through this process with a loved one and after the keys were taken away, a sense of comfort was present not only for the family members but 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."

Tune in this Thursday, June 25 to AM790, WPRV in Providence, Rhode Island for Connelly Law's Southcoast Seniors Radio Magazine.

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