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Seniority Behind the Wheel: Managing Safety Risks for Older Drivers

One of the most difficult milestones for seniors is deciding when it’s time to stop driving. As we get older, certain physical actions and mental capabilities important to motor vehicle skills inevitably become more difficult to manage, contributing to a higher accident risk.

That said, due to their maturity, older drivers often have better driving habits than other age groups. They are much less likely to be involved in a drunk driving accident, for example, and much more likely to wear a seat belt than any other age group. And although 183,000 drivers over 65 were injured in accidents in 2008, the majority of those accidents did not harm other drivers or passengers. Still, as a spouse, child, or friend, the risk of elderly driving once physical or mental capability starts to fade is too risky to ignore, no matter how uncomfortable having the conversation about giving up the keys could be.

The goal of this guide is to serve as a resource for people trying to understand the risks associated with driving at an older age, discuss options to complement physical or psychological changes, and  offer alternative sources of transportation if an older driver decides to stop driving.

Risks

Older drivers are generally considered safe since they avoid unnecessary risks associated with youth recklessness, but physical and mental changes can turn safe drivers into high-risk drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for example, found that while the risks are very different, drivers over the age of 75 are as likely to have an accident per mile driven as people under 24, generally considered the most at risk age group. Below is a brief description of the most common changes to mobility, vision, and reaction time.

Mobility

Symptoms:

  • Trouble looking over shoulder to check blind spot.
  • Difficulty moving foot quickly between gas and brake pedals.

What to Do?

  • Ask a doctor to prescribe medication for any stiffness in legs and/or neck.
  • Choose a vehicle with an automatic transmission, power steering, and power breaks.
  • Sit at least ten inches from steering wheel to avoid air bag injuries.

Vision

Sympoms:

  • Discomfort while driving at night due to headlights of approaching vehicles.
  • Blurring of street signs or traffic lines.

What to Do?

  • See an eye doctor yearly to update eyeglasses prescription and check for glaucoma.
  • Consider limiting driving to daylight hours.

Attention or Reaction Time

Symptoms:

  • Experiencing dizziness, seizures, or loss of consciousness.
  • Becoming lost or confused more often while behind the wheel.

What to Do?

  • Plan your route ahead of time to avoid getting lost in strange areas.
  • Drive primarily during daylight hours, when traffic lights are easier to see and there are fewer surprises.

Measures to Decrease the Dangers of Older Driving

It’s not always up to a high-risk driver’s family and friends to approach someone about putting the keys away for good. After all, it’s partially the government’s responsibility to keep everyone, not just seniors, safe. No state has implemented laws regulating driving based on old age alone. But some states have introduced new regulations to ensure that drivers above a certain age remain physically and emotionally fit to drive before they renew their licenses. Meanwhile, local organizations are making it easier for high-risk drivers to get off the road when it’s the right time.

Government Regulation

  • Additional Drivers’ License Renewal Requirements
    • California: No mail-in license renewal after 70.
    • Maine: Vision test required for every second renewal after 40.
    • Maryland: Vision test required at age 40 and every subsequent renewal.
    • Oregon: Vision screening required every 8 years after 50.
    • District of Columbia: After 70, a driver must undergo a vision and reaction test, in addition to providing a letter of fitness from a doctor.
    • Georgia: Vision test required for drivers 64 and older.
    • Illinois: Renewal applicants older than 75 must take a road test.
    • Many states forbid remote renewal after a certain age.
  • Results of additional regulations — mostly inconclusive.
    • One study showed a 17 percent reduction in the number of fatal crashes for drivers over 85 in states requiring in-person license renewal.
    • Another study showed that in states requiring vision testing for drivers over 65, there was no change in fatal accidents.

Alternatives to Driving

  • Public Transportation
    • Great if in a metropolitan area, but unavailable for rural and some suburban communities.
    • Efficient and cost effective.
    • Retired drivers can maintain the freedom of being able to go anywhere without having to ask for help.
  • Walking
    • The best option for rural and small suburban communities.
    • Staying active is an added bonus to shedding insurance costs and dangers associated with driving.
    • Can be complemented with taxi cabs or rides from friends or family when longer distance travel is necessary.
  • Help from Community Programs
    • Many churches and senior centers provide shuttle service for older citizens in need of transportation.
    • These programs are cheap (if not free), and encourage interaction with other retired members of the community.

Having the Conversation

Suggesting that a parent or spouse stop driving can be an incredibly touchy subject. For the first time since childhood, a freedom associated with daily routine is being taken away. But for high-risk drivers, the conversation is necessary and can be accomplished in a way that determines the best result for all sides.

  • Encourage a high-risk driver to take a self-survey about driving practices designed to indicate whether he or she still drives safely.
  • Present viable alternatives to driving that will maintain the high-risk driver’s sense of freedom.
  • Create a plan designed to phase in self-imposed driving regulations
  • Conversation Openers
    • An accident or close call.
    • Changes to health.
    • Increased tendency to get lost.
  • Anticipating Reactions
    • According to recent surveys, fewer than a fourth of older adults felt depression following the conversation, and fewer than ten percent are angry.
    • Many older drivers are worried about becoming a burden and losing social freedom.
  • If a driver refuses to listen, it is helpful to enlist the support of a doctor or driving rehabilitation specialist.

Please email GJEL Accident Attorneys at benb [at] gjel [dot] com with stories about your own experiences navigating your parent, spouse, or friend’s transition away from driving when it became too difficult.

Additional Resources

AAA Seniors

NHTSA Senior Drivers

IIHS Q&A: Older Drivers

National Center for Senior Transportation

State by State: Driving Laws Across the Nation

Photo credits: EmploymentCrossing, Kess, guydongesrfernand