Senior Drivers: When Should We Give Up the Keys?

Dec 14th, 2010 | By Sharon Shaw Elrod MSW EdD | Category: Senior Finances

It’s time to talk about when to stop driving… again.  A recent news article in The Mercury, a newspaper serving the Tri County Area in Pennsylvania, reported auto accidents and deaths involving senior citizens is on the rise in Pennsylvania.  The senior citizen population has grown to over 16% of the total population.  In 2009, 22% of fatal accidents involved a senior age 65 or older.  This article is in the Senior Finance column because of the potentially catastrophic impact a fatal accident caused by a senior could have on her/his life and assets.  Senior drivers who caused a fatal accident have been sentenced to prison, lost their entire estate in a civil lawsuit, and have been left penniless.

The issue is safety.  Safety for the senior driver as well as for everyone else on the road.  PennDOT is urging “…aging drivers and their families (to) talk frankly about the right time to turn over the car keys for good for safety’s sake.” 

But deciding just when a senior driver can no longer drive safely is highly challenging to address, and there are no clear-cut solutions to the problem.  For someone in her/his 80s, giving up the keys is a monumental statement of dependency.  The loss is highly emotional and charged with more energy than most of us can possibly imagine. 

The journal, Neurology, reported a study in April, 2010, in which recommendations are made for testing methodologies for senior drivers to determine whether or not they can drive safely.  Another study found 76% of seniors with mild dementia still able to pass the on-road driving test. Some states now require senior drivers over a specified age to submit to a driving test every year.

Seniors with cognitive impairment (dementia) suffer from spatial orientation issues and a decrease in cognitive functioning.  Translated, this means that some senior drivers have difficulty judging distances and may mistakenly hit the accelerator rather than the brake.  Or they may not be able to find the windshield wipers.  Or they fail to turn on headlights for night driving.  The list of possible driving issues for senior drivers is almost endless. 

Johns Hopkins Medical Alert offers some helpful suggestions for how to decide when driving is a safety issue for a senior driver in the family:

  • Stops in traffic for no reason or ignores traffic signs
  • Fails to signal or signals inappropriately
  • Drifts into other lanes of traffic or drives on the wrong side of the street
  • Becomes lost on a familiar route
  • Parks inappropriately
  • Has difficulty seeing pedestrians or other vehicles
  • Has difficulty making turns or changing lanes
  • Gets drowsy or falls asleep while driving
  • Lacks good judgment
  • Has minor accidents or near misses

We again re-state the obvious: There are no clear answers.  SCJ recommends talking with the senior driver about safety issues, and try to determine how driving safely can be addressed.  Last step solutions are talking with the senior’s physician about your concerns, and notifying the state department of motor vehicles of your concern.  They will take over from there, and the senior then must be able to meet minimum requirements for safe driving.



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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AlzDallas, Sharon Shaw Elrod. Sharon Shaw Elrod said: Senior Drivers: When Should We Give Up the Keys?: It’s time to talk about when to stop driving… again.  A recent… http://bit.ly/g2jZvC [...]

  2. “Beyond Driving with Dignity; The workbook for the families of older drivers”.

    This user-friendly workbook was developed to offer concerned families a working roadmap (complete with actual exercises) on how to address the issue of driving safety with an older adult in your family.

    The workbook has been designed to offer additional peace of mind to families, help older drivers maintain their independence and dignity, and at the same time help prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries on our nation’s roadways.

    Please visit our website at http://www.keepingussafe.org to learn more about the Beyond Driving with Dignity project.

    Matt Gurwell
    Founder & CEO
    Keeping Us Safe
    877-907-8841
    http://www.keepingussafe.org
    email: bdd@keepingussafe.org

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