Knowing When It's Time to Hand Over the Keys

Getting your driver’s license is one of the first signs of one’s emerging independence. It’s also convenient and an enjoyable activity for many, but as we age driving safely can also become concerning.

According to AAA, 37 million Americans will be age 65 or older by 2020 and at least 90 percent of them are licensed drivers. AARP reports that one in five Americans takes care of an older loved one. So, the topic of driving safely is going to become a reality for many people in the next few years, if it hasn’t already. That doesn’t make the topic any easier to talk about.

Before saying anything to your loved one about their driving, you should observe their driving skills, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your loved one easily distracted while behind the wheel?
  • Are they hitting curbs or having trouble making left turns?
  • Do they fail to follow traffic signs or signals often?

If you answer yes to any of these, it’s probably time to have a talk.

“With years of experience, senior drivers can be among the safest,” said Brian Unwin, M.D., chief of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Carilion Clinic. “However, the skills and abilities required for safe driving can deteriorate over time. The good news is there are a lot of resources you can utilize to help determine if your loved one is driving safe.”

Some of those resources include:

Use of these resources, or other older driver education programs, can keep the focus on their safety, and not on a perception of being "too old" to drive. Your loved one may listen more to the driving recommendations from a non-family member, for example a DMV examiner or their physician.

Since having independence is a big reason older adults don’t want to give up their car keys, making sure they’ll still have access to transportation alternatives (cabs, ride shares, public transportation, etc.) is important. Being stuck at home is isolating, so including them in family errands or outings can help make the transition more manageable.

Losing your license due to age or health conditions is never going to be easy, but reiterating to your loved one that safety is the most important thing – to themselves and others – may help them understand your line of thinking.

“It’s not an easy conversation to start, but when you as a caregiver are scared to drive with your mom or dad – it’s time,” said Dr. Unwin. “When you have that real fear, that’s probably the strongest evidence you can use to help them retire from driving.”