Senior driving safety: when is it time to put down the keys?

1
Blake Little/Getty Images
Bankrate Logo

Why you can trust Bankrate

While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here's an explanation for . This content is powered by HomeInsurance.com (NPN: 8781838). For more information, please see our

Older individuals often find themselves dealing with more health issues, including physical and mental ones, which may prevent them from driving to the best of their ability. Health issues may range from stiff joints and aching muscles to slower reflexes and symptoms of dementia. These ailments might be a natural part of aging and somewhat expected, but they can also make driving more of a challenge.

While aging is a natural part of life, it does not make the conversation any easier when we need to tell the ones we care about that it might be time to put away the keys. Having this conversation is tough, but it is in the best interest of the individual’s safety. Drivers who are 65 and older are 16% more likely to cause an accident compared to adults aged 25 to 64. There is no designated time frame for when you should tell someone they should stop driving for the sake of their safety and others, which means recognizing the right time is often left to the caregivers or loved ones. Knowing the signs and understanding how to start the conversation can go a long way.

Health issues that impact driving ability

Seniors may face health issues that impact their ability to drive safely. Although not an exhaustive list, the health problems an older person might encounter could include the following.

Bad vision

Vision problems can stem from multiple causes, such as glaucoma, cataracts or macular degeneration. Bad vision limits a driver from seeing signs clearly or recognizing their location. Seeing an eye doctor each year is critical to monitoring changes in vision.

Limited neck mobility

Whether it is due to sore muscles or part of the aging process, limited neck mobility can affect senior drivers in various ways. When a driver is unable to turn their head properly, it can lead to limited field of vision and a greater likelihood of not seeing another driver in their blind spots.

Brain damage from a stroke

Strokes can cause long-term brain damage, including severe lack of coordination. Driving after a stroke is possible, but is only advised once it has been cleared by a physician. Some states may even require a note from the physician with a medical clearance to drive. As 75% of strokes occur in older populations, the cognitive effects may have a greater impact on seniors’ driving capabilities than many people realize.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s are particularly vulnerable to having difficulty driving, especially since their ability to make decisions is heavily impacted. Dementia can be caused by Alzheimer’s or other factors and occurs in up to 7% of people age 60 and older. Warning signs usually include an individual forgetting where they are going or how to get home. However, they may not realize their ability to react quickly and reliably while driving can also be compromised.

Arthritis

Stiff joints, including arthritis pain, can make it more difficult to turn your head as needed, shift gears or perform other driving functions. Over 49% of people in the U.S. aged 65 and older have been diagnosed with arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Drivers may find it helpful to choose cars with automatic transmission and large mirrors to make driving with arthritis a little easier.

In addition to common health issues, older people tend to use more prescription drugs, which can have side effects like drowsiness, blurred vision and confusion and have negative impacts on driving. Recognizing these concerns, many states also require additional information from senior-aged drivers, such as visual tests and in-person license renewals. In Georgia, for example, anyone aged 64 or older must pass an additional eye exam with each renewal and must renew every five years, versus every eight years for younger drivers.

Driving stats for seniors

  • Over 700 older adult drivers are injured in car accidents each day and more than 20 are killed in car accidents.
  • There are more than 30 million licensed drivers on the road who are 70 or older..
  • Drivers aged 65-69 have the lowest number of auto insurance property damage claims, but the number of claims begins to increase at age 70.
  • Drivers aged 75 and older have higher death rates from accidents versus middle-aged drivers, according to the CDC.
  • Across all ages, including the senior population, male drivers are more likely to die in a car accident than female drivers.
  • Failure to yield the right-of-way is one of the most common causes for fatal accidents among senior drivers.

What to watch for: signs of an unsafe driver

The ability to exhibit safe driving behavior does not usually come to an immediate halt, but is typically rather a gradual process that can eventually lead to putting lives in danger. Look for the following signs if you are concerned about an older person’s ability to drive:

Poor Driving Skills

  • Driving extremely slowly
  • Not using turn signals
  • Trouble making turns or properly changing lanes
  • Parking outside of the lines of a space
  • Failing to stop at red lights or stop signs
  • Running into things and getting scrapes or dents on the car

Accidents can happen at any time, even without the onset of health issues. Because of this, it is vital to select the right auto insurance, including the right amount and types of coverage. In addition to providing liability coverage in case you cause injuries or property damage to someone else, auto insurance also offers financial protection to cover damages to your car and personal medical expenses following a covered incident if you have full coverage.

Physical and Cognitive Capabilities

  • Not being able to see or hear what is going on outside the vehicle
  • Difficulty backing up
  • Delayed responses to events around them
  • Needs someone else to tell them how to drive
  • Frequently getting lost or forgetting their destination
  • Getting confused frequently about how to handle different situations

Some of these signs may be easier to observe than others. If you do not live near the older drive you are observing, it makes it even more challenging to watch for warning signals. One tactic is to start the conversation early prior to any issues becoming noticeable. You can reassure them that there are other options and resources available if they are showing signs of poor driving skills or diminished physical and cognitive abilities.

How to talk to a family member or friend about no longer driving

Relaying your concerns to an aging friend or family member and letting them know you believe they can no longer drive safely is a difficult conversation to have, but keep these tips in mind when you do:

  • Start talking about it early so there are no surprises. The sooner you bring up the topic, the smoother the outcome is likely to be for everyone. Not only does this help keep surprises to a minimum, but it develops more open communication around the topic.
  • Choose who needs to initiate the conversation. You can talk with other family members and friends to find out who would be the best person to do the talking. Bear in mind that it should be someone the older driver trusts. Another option is to ask their physician, ophthalmologist or optometrist to address the situation. You can ask them to relay information and present the facts, such as failed eye exams or diminished physical abilities for safe driving.
  • Find a good time to talk and plan ahead. Pick a time that works for both you and the driver so you are comfortable and not rushed. Mark a date on the calendar and stick to it so you do not feel the urge to reschedule or put it off.
  • Provide the facts leading to the decision. Present the facts behind the decision and explain why you’ve come to it. This could be because of the medications they are on, their health or because of recent incidents causing alarm. Have the supporting materials ready and be familiar with them since they will provide the factual basis for getting an older driver to retire their keys.
  • Be encouraging and supportive. Losing the ability to drive often feels like loss of independence. Reassure your friend or family member that this decision is for their safety, but there are also other options for them to get around.
  • Offer alternative transportation suggestions, such as rideshare or public transportation. The good news is that there are numerous alternatives available for transportation, several of which can be used to preserve independence. Have your list of suggestions ready to share so you can discuss the options while you are together.
  • Suggest a driving test or class for elderly drivers. There are a number of online and in-person safety courses specifically designed for older drivers. This alternative could be offered when safety concern observations are first made. Not only could this help an older individual become a better driver, but it could qualify them for an auto insurance discount.

Options for if you can’t drive

Even if someone is unable to drive on their own, there are other transportation options so that they can get around.

Alternative methods of transportation

  • Family members: If family members are located close by, consider asking if they are willing to pitch in and drive the loved one to needed appointments, errands or other events. This is often the least expensive option, but works best if there are family members or trusted friends living nearby.
  • Caregivers & home care aides: There are services available to hire caregivers and home care aides to assist older people with driving to and from appointments. This helps relieve some of the stress on other family members or friends who drive them around and is an alternative in case there are no other family members close by. However, there is a cost to be considered when hiring caregivers.
  • Public transportation: Depending on where you live, there may be public transportation available to pick up and drop off older drivers to grocery stores, banks or other places of business. While this is usually an affordable option, it may present safety issues.
  • Volunteer transportation programs: There are religious and civic clubs that provide transportation options for seniors. Since it is a volunteer organization, it is a relatively low-cost option. Transportation would be limited to the availability of the volunteers, but a senior may find this helpful for getting to and from important events.
  • Paratransit services: If the county you live in has public transportation services, such as buses and trains, it likely has paratransit services too. These services are typically either free or low cost and take people with disabilities to and from medical appointments, the grocery store or other places within a designated area. To determine if your loved one is eligible, contact the local paratransit authorities to find out what criteria is needed.
  • Carpooling: Carpooling services not only offer a low-cost option for getting around town, but it adds a social aspect too. Safety should be a priority, so the best course of action would be for you and the older driver to research carpooling options together and choose a carpool with people you know.
  • Taxis & rideshare services: Uber and Lyft are two rideshare options to get seniors to and from their appointments. Since the app must be downloaded to use these services, the senior would need to be comfortable using a smartphone. Rideshare services are often less expensive than taxis. However, taxis may be preferred by older drivers since they typically rely on a phone call rather than booking through an app.
  • Senior call a ride programs: There are numerous senior call a ride programs, many of which are low-cost alternatives to driving. You may be able to find these programs through your loved one’s insurance company or local companies in the area.
  • Senior housing transportation: Today’s options for senior housing include a wide range of benefits. One benefit offered might be transportation services for residents. Double check with the facility to see if this is an option and what your loved one needs to do to book the service.

As with many aspects of protecting the people we love and care for, deciding to talk to someone about giving up their driving privileges involves several emotions. It is not a black and white issue with a one-size-fits-all solution. By working together to keep ongoing communication about safe driving and highlighting the numerous alternatives available, you can help create solutions that work best for everyone.

Written by
Sara Coleman
Insurance Contributor
Sara Coleman has three years of experience in writing for insurance domains such as Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, Reviews.com, Coverage.com and numerous other personal finance sites. She writes about insurance products such as auto, homeowners, renters and disability.
Edited by
Insurance Editor