When to Take the Keys from an Elderly Driver - A Difficult Decision for Everyone
By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
""On my way to an appointment last week, I saw an elderly driver with his car stuck on a high curb," said RJ Connelly III, a professional fiduciary and certified elder law attorney. The driver appeared confused and kept pressing the gas pedal, causing the tires to smoke profusely. Despite offers of help from bystanders, he refused to listen. This reminded me that it's time again to discuss senior drivers and when it's time to give up their keys."
"As drivers age, their safe driving capabilities may decline, making it crucial to regularly assess and monitor abilities. A recent Consumer Reports article found that drivers over eighty are six times more prone to deadly crashes. With 45 million licensed drivers over 65 and 29 million over 70, this problem is bound to escalate."
While it is true that elderly drivers may drive less and therefore are less likely to cause accidents, it cannot be ignored that the risk of accidents significantly increases with age. This fact cannot be denied and must be considered for the safety of all drivers on the road.
It is important to remember that driving requires good cognitive skills and adaptability. Seniors affected by dementia or other medical conditions may face challenges with their driving capabilities. Prescription drugs, such as painkillers, antidepressants, and sleeping pills, can also impair driving. In a study, almost 30 percent of seniors took five or more prescription drugs.
Accidents Involving Seniors
Let's look at some examples of bad driving from recent months, some with tragic results:
An 82-year-old man from Rhode Island was arrested after crashing into a police cruiser on Interstate 95, driving the wrong way on a divided highway, reckless driving, and failing to maintain a lane while under the influence.
Authorities said an 83-year-old man drove his SUV into a Massachusetts assisted living facility on Monday, injuring two residents. The driver and an 84-year-old woman who lived in the Nichols Village retirement community were hospitalized after the morning crash. The driver had to be helped out of the vehicle by first responders. A second resident of the damaged unit was treated at the scene but did not require hospitalization.
A 76-year-old woman crashed her car into a CVS Pharmacy in Pawtucket, receiving several citations, after which police arrived and found damage to the side of the building and an unattended car in the parking lot had also been hit. The woman and her car were eventually found stuck on train tracks near George Bennett Highway.
An 80-year-old man died after a motor vehicle crash in New Haven Friday afternoon. New Haven police said they were called to the 1200 block of Forest Rd. for a reported one-car crash. According to authorities, a Mazda traveling north swerved onto the sidewalk before hitting a telephone pole. The impact of the crash caused the car to come to rest in the front yard of a nearby home. Police said the driver was transported to the hospital and was later pronounced dead.
An 86-year-old woman crashed into a liquor store after failing to reach the brake pedal while parking. The incident occurred in Vernon, Connecticut.
Despite the spectacular crashes reported above, seniors are often involved in minor accidents. While teenagers are generally considered the highest-risk drivers, seniors are involved in more accidents when considering mile-for-mile driven.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, elderly drivers are also at an increased risk of being involved in fatal car crashes at intersections. Seniors are more prone to accidents such as left-turn crashes, accidents at stop signs, and yield signs rather than at traffic signal lights.
Police records indicate that drivers aged 70-74 and those above 85 are at a significantly higher risk of being involved in fatal crashes, with males in these age groups being particularly susceptible. Additionally, seniors are responsible for a high number of crashes in parking lots, homes, and businesses that do not necessarily make newspaper headlines.
How Aging Can Be Responsible
Obviously, it is imperative for drivers to maintain an elevated level of vigilance and be always alert to pedestrians. However, shocking statistics reveal those individuals over eighty-five face the highest risk of pedestrian-related fatalities, with an alarming rate of 4.4 deaths per 100,000. This can be attributed to the natural aging process, thus underscoring the critical importance of cautious driving. Consider these reasons:
Arthritis is a condition that affects a sizable number of older adults, with 50 percent being affected, and this number increases to 80 percent for those in their seventies. This condition causes inflammation in the joints, limiting critical driving skills such as turning, flexing, and twisting.
As we age, our muscles weaken and our range of motion decreases, affecting our ability to properly operate the car, including using the steering wheel, brake, accelerator, and opening windows while focusing on the road.
It's concerning that despite over 75% of drivers over sixty-five are taking multiple prescription medications, less than one-third are knowledgeable about the potential side effects of the medication's effects on their cognition and bodies.
As previously mentioned, fatal crash rates per mile increase significantly after age 75 and are seventeen times higher for those over eighty compared to ages 25-65. This is largely due to the increased 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 can be downright difficult.
Deciding to Take the Keys
According to research conducted by the AARP, adult children under 65 tend to avoid discussing their concerns with their parents. Interestingly, 40% of this group prefer to discuss funeral arrangements instead of broaching the topic of taking away their parents' car keys.
According to a recent national telephone survey, most respondents did not believe that adult children should be the ones to decide whether a parent should be driving. In fact, only 16% thought they should make this decision. However, 29% believed a doctor should make the call, 25% thought it should be left to the family, and 23% believed the government should be involved. These findings suggest that there is no clear consensus on who should be responsible for making this major decision.
A survey revealed that regarding driving, the majority of seniors preferred family involvement or making the decision themselves, with only a minority opting for the involvement of a doctor or government intervention. Specifically, 30% of respondents preferred family involvement, 26% preferred making the decision themselves, 20% preferred a doctor's involvement, and a mere 10% wanted government involvement.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cites several 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.
Get 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".
Two or more traffic tickets or warnings have been issued in the past two years.
Dents and scrapes on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, and curbs.
If you have concerns about the driving abilities of an older individual, it may be helpful to recommend that they enroll in a driving course to enhance their skills. AARP provides nationwide driver safety courses, and its website contains extensive information about these programs.
But what if their driving skills have regressed so much that even a refresher course may not be able to help? It becomes time to discuss giving up the car with your loved one. This task can be challenging, so it’s understandable why family members feel more comfortable discussing funeral plans than taking the keys.
Having "The Talk"
Think of it this way, do you remember when you first started 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?
Now, imagine a senior struggling with memory loss, physical limitations, and failing eyesight. They may be selling their home and moving into assisted living, this as their friends and even spouses pass away. For most seniors, the car and the ability to travel is the only source of independence and normalcy they can cling to. It is disheartening to hear that this aspect of their lives will also be taken away. If you must have this discussion, we recommend planning it beforehand. Here are some ideas:
Come prepared with evidence of any traffic violations, accidents, or damage to the vehicle as well as witnesses to the unsafe driving. It's better to address the issue privately than in court.
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.
Make a list of the cost-savings to which giving up the keys would amount. 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:
It is imperative to approach the discussion of removing keys from an elderly individual with empathy and caution. Any unfounded accusations could lead to detrimental effects such as depression, making it essential to exercise utmost care while addressing the situation.
Ensure other family members are involved with the conversation so the senior can see it is a family decision.
It is crucial to approach conversations with seniors with respect and honesty. Recognize their past contributions and experiences while addressing possible risks. Refrain from using accusatory or blaming language and instead prioritize conveying the truth. Express genuine concern for the safety of both the senior and those around them.
Explain the alternatives and 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 come limitations. It’s a reality.
You could withdraw the car slowly. Set limitations for safety reasons. For instance, no driving after dark or in the rain. Stay off highways and no children or grandchildren in the car.
In the case of an individual with dementia who stubbornly insists on driving despite your efforts to persuade them otherwise, the best course of action would be to disable the vehicle by removing the battery cable or other essential electrical components.
Aside from age, other factors may impede an individual from driving, including vision impairments, medication adverse effects (especially painkillers and benzodiazepines), cardiac issues like tachycardia, severe pain, and even addiction or alcoholism.
"After completing the task, assist the individual in arranging transportation and other assistance until they feel confident to do it alone," said Attorney Connelly. "Remember, you have eliminated a key aspect of their self-sufficiency, so now you're helping them establish a new way to be self-reliant."
Attorney Connelly told us that after speaking with numerous family members who had to take away a loved one's keys, he found that not only did this provide comfort for the family members, but it also provided a sense of relief for the senior. In fact, one family reported that their mother was much happier months later, saying, "I don't know why I didn't do this earlier."
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