Safe at Home (Part 4): Behind the Wheel - Skip to content

Safe at Home (Part 4): Behind the Wheel

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It’s one of the toughest decisions an elder can make — probably harder than deciding whether or not to get a reverse mortgage, often more challenging than facing a serious health concern. Driving symbolizes maturity, independence, and freedom, and many seniors will not surrender the keys without a fight.

Yet aging itself is not the culprit. We each age differently, and while some people may be unsafe behind the wheel at 70, others can still be competent drivers two decades later.

According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), seniors outlive their ability to drive safely by an average of 7 to 10 years. That’s a long time to be a danger on the road. And since senior drivers are more physically fragile, their fatality rates in an accident are 17 times higher than those of 25- to 64-year-olds.

What’s most frustrating for senior drivers and those who love them is: life changes tend to occur gradually. Like the proverbial frog being slowly heated in a pot of water, seniors may not realize their driving ability is diminishing until they’ve become a hazard behind the wheel.

In Part 3 of our Safe at Home series we discussed creative use of car keys for senior protection. When using those same keys to drive creates danger, it’s time to hand them over. You may wish to share the following list with families of your reverse mortgage prospects and clients, include it in a newsletter or other mailing, and incorporate the information into talks and gatherings.

15 Warning Signs It May Be Time to Stop Driving:

  • Distracted driving (and not from texting!)
  • Scrapes or dents in the car, mailbox or garage
  • Frequently hitting the curb or having “near misses” with other cars or objects
  • Inability to swivel the head when backing up. (Normal aging can impair vision, strength and flexibility.)
  • Failing to notice or obey street signs or traffic lights
  • Riding the brake
  • Difficulty turning corners
  • Other cars repeatedly honking at the driver
  • Difficulty parking
  • Not staying in their lane
  • Driving well below the speed limit
  • Unable to easily find the way home
  • Confusing the gas and brake pedals
  • Getting a ticket or getting into an accident
  • Stopping in the middle of traffic for no apparent reason.

One way concerned family members and friends might approach the issue is to take a spin with Mom or Dad before serious problems arise. If several of the above red flags start waving, keep close tabs on the senior’s driving activities, and schedule a medical evaluation. There may be an underlying health issue. If a physician confirms that the senior should not to be driving, use this as your ace: “The doctor says you are no longer safe behind the wheel, and we love you too much to allow you to harm yourself — or someone else.”

It’s important for seniors to be re-qualified by the State to ensure they are still safe drivers. This generally includes a vision test and actual behind-the-wheel driving test. Unfortunately, in many states “good drivers” are able to renew their license by mail, lulling older drivers into a false sense of capability. 

Here are five creative solutions for safe senior transport:

  • Multipurpose driver. Seniors often become isolated once their spouse and/or friends die or move away. A vetted driver who can also serve as a part-time companion can alleviate a number of worries — and possibly become a new friend.
  • Community shuttles/senior transit. Many communities offer a free or low cost senior shuttle service, especially for medical appointments. Some towns provide a regularly scheduled senior bus to fixed locations, such as the grocery store, mall or library. Senior centers may provide shuttle service to and from the center.
  • Specialized senior taxis. A senior car service, or senior taxi, can be another good alternative. With the money a senior saves from not having to maintain a car and pay for insurance and gas, the cost of a taxi service may prove manageable. Search on terms such as “senior transport” or “senior taxi service” plus the name of the town or area. Verify the drivers have clean driving records. It’s also ideal if you can arrange for the senior who will be using the service to have a pre-paid drawdown account, so they don’t have to deal with payment at the time of transport.
  • Ride “exchange”. A social senior may discover friends, neighbors, or college students who would be delighted to provide transport in exchange for use of the senior’s car at other times. This type of creative exchange can also include returning the driving favor in a different way, such as cooking a meal for the driver.
  • Walking/cycling. An otherwise healthy senior who needs to relinquish the keys may find that walking or cycling short distances is not only a good way to get around, but also to stay fit. Regular exercise reduces the risk for many conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and dementia.

What about older drivers who are in pristine health, more flexible than some 20-year-olds, and able to drive rings around their grandchildren (who are busy playing with those road-hazardous smartphones)? The biggest risk for these drivers may be potential identity theft. Senior drivers who pump their own gas should always press “yes” for a receipt, and then press “Clear” (on the lower left side of the numbers panel) at the gas station, so no one can access their credit/debit card information.

Finally, giving up the keys needn’t be perceived as a negative. Like other life stages, it can be viewed as graduating to the next level of maturity. After all, children get “chauffeured” everywhere. Don’t seniors, who’ve driven themselves and others for a lifetime, deserve the same courtesy?




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  1. Marilu ~

    Thanks for your comment. I completely agree with everything you wrote, which is why I mentioned the re-qualifying exam. My dad, now 90, has been renewing by mail for years as well. He may still be a safe driver, but given the erratic driving habits of so many others these days, I’m concerned about his responses time and reflexes. And while I live at distance, my sibling, who lives close by, sees no problem.

    This is why senior shuttles and ride-sharing services can be so valuable. These exist in most areas, but getting someone like my father (or your 98-y.o. relative) to use them is the great challenge.

  2. Great post. I like you offered both the positives and negatives on this prickly issue. While families express a great deal of concern about how Mom or Dad drive, few adults consider what it must have been like to be in the car when they were teens learning to drive.

    Those worried about a loved one’s driving need to think in terms of solutions that can maintain the elders mobility and independence. The solution isn’t just taking away the keys, it is also how do we make sure Dad or Mom keep their independence and dignity.

  3. Thanks, Scott! As a life/business coach as well as health and positive aging writer, I always aim to think in terms of solutions and possibilities. And yes, I remember what it was like to BE that teen driver, lol!

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