With more older adults choosing to continue driving, the question of how long senior drivers remain safe while on the road has become more significant. On one hand, driving can help older adults stay mobile, independent, and connected to their loved ones and their communities.
Yet, getting older can make driving riskier. According to the National Institute on Aging, normal changes that come with aging like reduced vision, slower reflexes, trouble hearing, and stiff joints can all affect your ability to drive safely. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that over 700 older adult drivers are injured and more than 20 are killed in auto accidents in the U.S. each day.
While old age alone is not a reason to stop driving, those with age-related physical and cognitive challenges may be in danger while driving. Even so, your loved one may not give up driving easily. We’ve created this guide on seniors and driving to help you and your family tackle this difficult topic. Below, you can read about the warning signs of a dangerous driver, how to talk to your loved one about driving, and some of the best transportation services for seniors when you need them.
Causes of Driving Difficulties with Age
Older drivers often deal with the natural effects of aging, such as vision loss, hearing difficulties, or dulled reflexes. In addition, many older adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic illnesses that can impede their ability to drive safely, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, or dementia.
Below are some of the most common risk factors that can interfere with an older adult’s ability to operate a car safely. The following factors do not mean they should immediately stop driving, but they can raise their risk of being in an accident.
Physical and mental impairments that accompany aging, from Parkinson’s disease to dementia, can compromise driving ability and judgment. If you have questions about how your loved one’s physical condition can affect their ability to drive, consult a physician. However, keep in mind when consulting the doctor of a friend or family member that a physician can’t talk to you without the patient’s permission unless you have power of attorney.
According to Elizabeth Dugan, author of The Driving Dilemma, “90 percent of the information needed to drive safely relates to the ability to see clearly.” From accurately reading the speedometer to detecting pedestrians on the side of the road, good driving requires good eyesight. Yet, according to the CDC, deterioration in vision is an inevitable effect of aging, especially after the age of 75.
As we age, our eyes become susceptible to various impairments such as cataracts and glaucoma, and normal vision loss. Encourage your older loved one to have regular eye exams, and consult their eye doctor if you still have concerns.
One-third of people over the age of 65 have hearing problems. Hearing loss can happen gradually, without the person realizing it, undermining their ability to hear horns, screeching tires, sirens, and other sounds that would normally put someone on high alert. Make sure the person in your care receives regular hearing tests.
Prescription Drug Use and Drug Interactions
Many drugs can compromise driving ability by causing drowsiness, blurred vision, confusion, tremors, or other side effects. Certain drugs taken in combination can also interact and cause serious problems. If your loved one takes a lot of pills each day, as many elderly people do, be sure to talk to a health care provider about the drugs and their possible side effects.
Remember that even herbal remedies and over-the-counter medications can affect driving ability. Talk to your family member’s doctors and pharmacists, and be sure to ask about possible drug interactions.
Warning Signs of an Unsafe Elderly Driver
How can you tell when the time has come for someone to stop driving? It isn’t always immediately obvious when an older adult begins to have trouble behind the wheel. Your parent or other aging loved one may not notice that their driving skills are deteriorating or may not want to acknowledge it. You may not want to either.
While you want your parents to maintain their independence as long as possible, don’t wait for an accident to happen before you intervene. We’ve developed guidelines that will help you avoid being an alarmist while also helping you know when driving is no longer a safe activity for the person in your care.
Watch for the following signs of a dangerous driver:
1. Car Insurance Changes or Traffic Tickets
If you’ve observed some questionable driving on your aging loved one’s part, ask whether they’ve gotten any tickets for speeding or other violations. It’s best to ask in a neutral, non-accusatory way, preferably when they’re not behind the wheel.
If you’re not comfortable asking about tickets, ask whether your loved one’s car insurance rate has increased. If the answer is yes, this may be a sign that they’ve had recent driving infractions.
This is an especially telling sign for a driver that typically has not had tickets or warnings from law enforcement in the past.
2. Damage to the Car
When your aging loved one is not with you, walk around their car and look for signs of damage. Everyone’s car gets nicked now and then by someone else’s door in a parking lot, but does their car have the kinds of scratches or dents that could indicate driving mishaps? If so, ask them about it.
3. Reluctance to Drive
Notice whether your parent is reluctant to drive, seems tense or exhausted after driving, or complains of getting lost. They may, for example, decline invitations to social events that require them to drive, particularly at night. This may be their way of acknowledging that they’re aware of their own limitations and taking steps to avoid an accident.
4. Friends’ Observations
Discreetly check in with your loved one’s friends and neighbors and ask if they’ve noticed any driving problems. Don’t wait for them to call you if you’re worried about your parent’s driving. They may feel uncomfortable approaching you with any concerns but may talk with you if you contact them directly.
If you live far from your parents, try to identify one or two people who would be willing to keep you informed about your parent’s driving and general safety. Contact them regularly, and make sure they have your contact information so they can reach you if anything comes up.
5. Driving Behavior Changes
Take several drives with your aging loved one at the wheel, and observe their driving with an open mind.
As you ride with them, look for these signs of driving problems:
- Do they fasten their seat belt?
- Do they sit comfortably at the wheel, or do they crane forward or show signs of discomfort?
- Do they seem tense and preoccupied, or easily distracted?
- Are they aware of traffic lights, road signs, pedestrians, and other motorists’ reactions?
- Do they often tailgate or drift toward the oncoming lane or into other lanes?
- Do they react slowly or with confusion in unexpected situations?
- Do they consistently wait too long to respond to traffic lights or other driving cues?
- Do they tailgate?
- Do they stay in their own lane or let the car drift very close to the centerline?
- Do they complain about getting lost more than they used to?
- Do they seem particularly tired after driving?
If you drive with them a few times and notice problems, it’s time to initiate a discussion about your concerns and whether it might be time for them to stop driving.
Professional Assessments of Driving Safety
If you’re not sure whether or not an older driver is safe behind the wheel, there are experts who can help. We explain some of the most common options below.
The Driver’s Doctors
Make sure the driver is up-to-date with their medical and vision exams. If you’re concerned that health or vision problems may be impeding their driving abilities, tell their physician or eye doctor. Be specific about any symptoms you’ve observed.
By law, doctors can’t share medical information with patients’ children without a patient’s permission, unless you have medical power of attorney or your loved one has signed a HIPAA release. Even if your loved one refuses to allow the doctor to give you information, you should still alert the physician if you’ve noticed symptoms or behaviors that worry you.
Driver Rehabilitation Specialists
A certified driver rehabilitation specialist (CDRS) is an expert — usually a driving instructor or occupational therapist — who is trained to evaluate someone’s driving abilities. A CDRS won’t hesitate to recommend driving cessation if they believe a driver is no longer safe. At the same time, they won’t tell an older person to stop driving if it’s not warranted, no matter what the caregiver wishes.
If an older driver is still safe behind the wheel but their skills could use improvement, a few sessions with a CDRS can help them break bad habits and learn new skills. A CDRS can also recommend safety devices, such as special mirrors or adaptive foot pedals.
If the CDRS concludes that an older adult is no longer safe to drive, their experts can help ease the transition by providing concrete information and support. Many driving programs and geriatric centers have such experts on staff. You can also find a CDRS near you by consulting the directory for the Association for Driving Rehabilitation Specialists.
If you’re worried about whether an older adult is driving safely, resources provided by your state’s DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) may help. Many DMVs now have websites that offer information and resources on older adults and driving issues, including driver-improvement programs and driver self-assessments. For example, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles even has a “senior ombudsman” available to assist older adults and their families.
If the person in your care refuses to stop driving and you believe they pose a significant safety risk, you can file an unsafe driver report with your state DMV. A DMV representative will then contact your loved one and request a medical evaluation, possibly including a driving test. Depending on the findings, their license may be restricted or revoked altogether.
Some states conceal the identity of the person who makes the report while others do not. Even if your loved one finds out you “interfered,” their potential anger is preferable to letting them injure or kill themselves or a pedestrian through a driving error.
How to Talk to an Elderly Loved One About Driving
If you have concerns about an elderly adult’s ability to drive, addressing them promptly could be a matter of life and death. Yet, it’s awkward and painful to inform older adults that they can’t do something as basic and essential as driving a car. For them, it can be another reminder of their growing inability to manage the tasks of daily life.
As difficult as it is, if you have reason to believe that the person in your care could be dangerous behind the wheel, it’s important to deal with the issue sooner rather than later since later could be too late.
It’s a good idea to plan how you’re going to approach the subject before bringing it up. Take time to consider how the situation looks from the driver’s point of view and what driving means to them.
In his book How to Say It to Seniors, geriatric expert David Solie points out that because elderly people face so many losses at this stage of life, they tend to rigidly control the few things they can. This struggle for control will almost certainly come into play where driving is concerned, because giving up the car keys could affect where they live, who they see, and what interests and activities they can pursue. To you, this decision is a simple matter of good sense and safety; for them, it represents the end of life as they’ve always known it.
Prepare for More Conversations
If you assume that one discussion will neatly resolve the matter, you’re bound to be disappointed. Given how charged the driving issue is, think of this as a process that will take some adjustment and fine-tuning. Consider this a preliminary discussion and a way to get the issue out on the table.
Consider your own role. Remember that it’s not up to you to convince the person in your care to immediately cease driving, even if you think this is the best course of action. Unless the driver has dementia or is otherwise incapacitated (see below), it’s best to respect their right to make decisions about their life, just with your input and support.
Additionally, consider temporarily giving up driving yourself. Elizabeth Dugan (The Driving Dilemma) recalled a colleague who stopped using his car for two weeks before talking to his elderly father about driving safety. His carless weeks gave him firsthand experience of the inconvenience and lack of mobility that his father was going to endure. Even if you don’t give up your car, you should still give some thought to the emotional and practical issues facing your loved one when they can no longer drive.
Start With Curiosity
When you introduce the subject, try to avoid coming on too strong or you’ll set the discussion off on the wrong foot. You may feel a sense of urgency, but if you start with accusations and demands (“You have to stop driving! You’re going to kill someone!”), your loved one will probably either get angry or tune you out.
Remember that if you’ve noticed that their driving has grown erratic and sloppy, they’re probably aware of it too. You can be most helpful by encouraging them to express and work through their own concerns. A good way to do this is to initiate the discussion with a question. For instance, if you know that they have received a traffic ticket, ask them about it, and then follow up with another question like, “How are you doing with your driving? Are you finding it a little difficult to manage?”
Handle Objections With Reflective Listening
Your loved one may respond by pointing out practical reasons they can’t stop driving (“What about my golf game?” or “Mom’s therapy appointments are across town!”). They’re already making the case for why they can’t stop without directly answering your question about their driving.
Encourage them to discuss their concerns without immediately jumping in with solutions. It’s also usually counterproductive to offer reassurances (“Don’t worry, it will all work out fine”). Such responses may offer temporary comfort, but they won’t help resolve the larger issues.
Instead, help them express their fears by using “reflective listening,” a technique Dugan recommends when talking about driving and other difficult issues with an elderly parent or older adult. Reflective listening means rephrasing what the person has said, conveying support, providing encouragement, and helping the speaker gain insight into their experience.
To use reflective listening in the example above, you could say something like, “Look, I know you’re probably worried that giving up driving would mean you have to give up some of your usual activities.” This type of response will encourage them to talk about their worries and reflect upon them, an important step in working through major problems and transitions.
Allow Space for a Long Conversation
When reflecting on driving and its role in your aging loved one’s life, don’t be surprised if they begin to talk about the past. They may reminisce about their honeymoon to the Grand Canyon or recall how they saved up money for their first car or taught all the kids how to drive.
Rather than interrupting, encourage the reminiscences by asking questions or asking to see photos. Sifting through memories will help them come to terms with the role driving has played in their life and the fact that they’ll soon have to give it up.
As the discussion progresses, ask what they think they should do about driving. Help them jot down the pros and cons of the alternatives they face. This approach can reveal the benefits of not driving, such as financial savings on auto insurance, car maintenance, and gas. It also may help focus them on the stark consequences — such as a fatal accident — that could result from maintaining the status quo.
Of course, there’s no telling how your unique discussion will unfold. But any discussion is more likely to be productive and positive if you approach it with a genuine desire to learn more about their experiences, ideas, and concerns.
Find Out if Other Issues Are Affecting Driving
If the person you’re caring for acknowledges that they’re having difficulty driving, find out if solvable medical problems could be causing the issues. Make appointments with their physician and eye doctor and be sure to ask about medication, side effects, and drug interactions.
Always consider if the problem can be remedied with a change in medication, a stronger pair of glasses, or even a car repair. Make sure that your loved one’s car is suited to their needs and physical abilities, and ask their doctor if assistive devices might help address their driving difficulties.
Discuss Alternative Options
Once you determine the source of the problem, you can decide what to do next. Your loved one’s doctor might suggest limiting driving to daylight hours or essential errands. If they’re going to continue to drive at all, it’s a good idea for them to brush up on their driving skills and the traffic laws by taking a senior driving refresher course. Organizations such as AARP, AAA, and commercial driving schools all offer these types of courses. Agree to revisit the decision every few months to see how it’s going.
Additionally, whether or not your loved one has to give up driving immediately, you should help them become familiar with other transportation options. Take the bus with them if they’re apprehensive, and help them find out more about local senior transportation services. Encourage them to carpool with friends, and show them how to use a rideshare service on their phone.
Most importantly, you should take a break if they refuse to address the issue of driving safety or become angered by it. Bring it up again in a week or so. They may become more receptive to discussing the matter as they grow used to the realization that the risks of continuing to drive outweigh the benefits.
Ways to Help a Senior Stop Driving
Giving up driving is an inconvenient and emotionally draining process that can result in increased isolation and dependency. In some cases, older adults can no longer live on their own if they can’t drive.
You can help support your loved one emotionally through this transition in several important ways:
- Listen: Don’t change the subject when your loved one talks wistfully about driving. They are mourning a major loss of freedom and need to come to terms with their grief.
- Share memories: Encourage your loved one to talk about some of their cherished driving memories and share photos.
- Watch for signs of depression: If your loved one shows signs of melancholy or uncharacteristic irritability, these could be symptoms of depression. Other symptoms can include sleeplessness, fatigue, loss of appetite, or excessive eating. If you suspect that your loved one is depressed, consult their doctor.
- Be present: Make a point of being more available than usual. Check on them regularly, include them in family activities, encourage them to keep in contact, and offer to drive them when you can. If you live far away, check in frequently by phone and visit as often as possible.
Practical Steps to Help a Senior Stop Driving
Along with supporting an older loved one emotionally when they have to give up driving, you can also find practical ways to help them make the transition to being carless.
- Learn about paratransit: Research local paratransit and other alternative transportation options, and accompany your loved one the first few times to make them feel more comfortable with it.
- Identify informal transportation options: Brainstorm possible transportation options such as a neighbor that might be willing to drive them. Options that incorporate social opportunities are especially helpful, such as carpooling with other older adults to activities at the local senior center.
- Help your loved one find activities that don’t involve driving: Suggest possible volunteer activities and other projects such as local hospital or school functions, provided they can get to them. Offer to help if they’re planning a house project, such as organizing their garage or planting a garden. Make sure they’re aware of local activities and resources for older adults in their area.
- Do some additional research: AAA offers advice for caregivers, as well as information about transportation resources around the country. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging also provides its own guide: Transportation Options for Older Adults. The American Public Transportation Association offers a directory of mass transportation resources around the country.
Understand Your Role in Their Transition
Whether your loved one still drives, drives with restrictions, or must give up driving altogether, you can play a valuable role. Your active participation in their lives will reassure them that ceasing to drive doesn’t sentence them to isolation and boredom. Below are some steps you can take to help them transition to life after driving.
- Make it a habit to check in on them, even just to chat or share some news.
- Offer to drive them to the activities they enjoy or help find someone who can take them.
- See that they’re included in family outings, like their grandchildren’s school events or a day at the beach.
- Encourage them to take the bus or walk to their errands or social activities, provided they aren’t too far away. Offer to go with them if you can.
- Urge them to ask for rides from friends and to reciprocate in whatever way they can (preparing a meal, for example).
- Help them develop new routines and interests that don’t require driving, like gardening, walking, or swimming at the local pool.
Remember that your support and involvement in their lives can make giving up the car a far less lonely and frightening prospect.
Transportation Options for Seniors Who No Longer Drive
If your elderly loved one is no longer able to drive, chances are that they also need the following forms of assistance:
- Help from family caregivers, friends, or neighbors
- Help from paid caregivers
- Transportation as included in a long-term care community or adult day care center
For those not receiving these forms of assistance or care, there are other ways to get around, including:
- Local public transportation or subsidized transportation options designed specifically for elderly or disabled riders
- Ride-sharing options such as those highlighted below
Top Ridesharing Options for Seniors
Transportation is rapidly changing, in part due to the rise of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. In a short time, these convenient services have become crucial for getting around cities.
You might think these services have been a boon for seniors who are unable to drive. However, many seniors either don’t have a smartphone or aren’t comfortable using it. Others may require handicap accessibility or assistance getting to and from the door. Additionally, ride-sharing services are really only available in cities, leaving many people who live in more rural areas without these options.
Luckily, a variety of services have cropped up recently to help seniors and their caregivers address some of these challenges, including recent initiatives by industry leaders Uber and Lyft.
In 2015, ride-hailing behemoth Uber started a pilot program in Gainesville, Florida, to provide transportation for residents of two senior living communities. The company offered technology tutorials to help seniors get comfortable with using the app to request a ride. In 2016, Uber expanded the program to all seniors in Gainesville.
Now with Uber Health, seniors who reside in certain communities can use Uber without even needing to create an account.
Learn more at Uber.com.
Like Uber, ridesharing giant Lyft is taking steps to improve its accessibility. Several years ago, Lyft announced a slate of solutions tailored to seniors, working with partners to take Lyft requests over the phone and to make it easier for groups working with seniors to request rides on their behalf.
Lyft has also been working on making its service more accessible to people with disabilities, though like Uber, its coverage is spotty and it has faced lawsuits over its ADA compliance. Lyft has a setting in its app to request a vehicle capable of accommodating wheelchairs, but in areas where Lyft doesn’t have such vehicles, it recommends another service that may need to be booked 24 hours or more in advance.
Learn more at Lyft.com.
One service that’s popped up to help seniors manage Uber and Lyft is Go Go Grandparent, a call-in service that helps people who either don’t have or aren’t comfortable with smartphones to arrange rides. The service offers an extra measure of assurance by employing “professional grandchildren” to make sure the ride goes smoothly and features an option to alert the rider’s caregiver where their older loved one is going and who their driver is.
The service is largely automated but operators are available if necessary.
The company was founded in Los Angeles last year by Justin Boogaard and David Lung. Boogaard says he started the service just to help his own grandmother. But before long, he was taking calls from about 100 of her friends. It was affecting his sleep, and he realized he had to hire staff to help.
Go Go Grandparent began charging for the service (19 cents per minute in addition to the standard Uber or Lyft fee) and has now accumulated tens of thousands of customers.
Learn more at GoGoGrandparent.com.
Arrive is another smaller service similar to Go Go Grandparent, dispatching Lyft and Uber rides to customers, many of whom do not have smartphones. Live operators provide an even higher level of service, including giving drivers detailed descriptions of the riders before pickup.
“Most of what we’re doing is directing the driver when they’re at the address to find the rider,” says Arrive co-founder Amy Stice.
Hours of operation are limited to between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Pacific Time, so most of the company’s customers are still on the West Coast. But some East Coasters have been taking advantage of the service for evening activities like going to dinner, Stice says.
Stice got the idea for the service when she was arranging Uber rides for her grandmother in Moraga, California. Now, she’s providing the same service for between 100 and 200 others, half of whom don’t own cell phones at all.
Learn more at ArriveRides.com.
A company offering a novel approach to ride-sharing services in the San Francisco area, SilverRide was launched back in 2007, well before Uber or Lyft. Its services are even more comprehensive (they even accompany seniors on their outings if desired).
Before even going anywhere, SilverRide drivers spend time with their clients and families to plan outings. They’ll not only take them on errands like doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping but also to ballgames, museums, restaurants, and parks, according to the company’s website.
When they pick up clients, the drivers go inside to help them to the car, and when they arrive at their destination, they walk the client inside as well.
Learn more at SilverRide.com.
Frequently Asked Questions
At what age do most seniors stop driving?
75 is the average age of seniors who stop driving, but everyone’s situation is different. One 85-year-old driver may be safer than another 65-year-old driver. Medical conditions can also change a driver’s ability to act and react safely while on the road. Remember to judge your loved one’s abilities without overreacting. Speak with their physician if you have questions or concerns.
How can I encourage my elderly parent to wear their seat belt?
Defer to an encouraging and supportive attitude when broaching the subject of your loved one’s driving safety. Be patient and cite clear reasons why wearing a seatbelt is important without becoming angry or accusatory. Remember that while it may seem like sensible advice to you, your loved one may feel that their independence is at stake.
What are the benefits of an elderly driving school?
Safety courses and driving refreshers help remind your elderly loved one about the rules of the road and the safety procedures they should keep in mind. Additionally, they provide an opportunity for someone other than yourself to assess their driving abilities and take precautionary measures if needed.
Do seniors have to take a driving test?
Every state has different rules concerning when seniors must take a driving test. However, most require one at each license renewal once the driver hits the age of 75. Contact your state’s DMV if you would like to learn more about testing requirements in your area.