Elderly Drivers: Stop or Go?

by Phyllis Staff, Ph.D.

Without so much as a tap on the brakes, my aunt whizzed through another stop sign.

"What are you doing?" I shrieked. "That was a stop sign."

"Oh," she replied rather offhandedly, "they just put those there so you'll look before you go into an intersection."

That was the day I stopped riding with my aunt but not the day she stopped driving. From then on, I had visions of an enormous pink Chevy leading a parade of cascading accidents. And I wasn't far from wrong.

She drove with what she knew to be the utmost caution. . . .never exceeding 30 miles per hour, even on I35! She expected, even demanded that traffic would give way to her like the seas parted for Moses. Sometimes, it did. But mostly, driving with her was a harrowing experience with no end in sight.

So, when do the elderly become a menace on the roads? And, what can you do when they refuse to give up the keys? Here are a few suggestions I've found.

Causes for Concern

Poor Vision - Cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration can reduce visual acuity and limit visual fields, so a yearly eye exam is imperative for the elderly driver. Ask the doctor about driving, and don't take the word of the elderly driver on the results of her exam.

Poor Hearing - Something as simple as a clogged ear passage can create a hearing loss. A doctor can identify the problem and offer solutions, so have elderly hearing checked yearly.

Poor Flexibility and Limited Range of Motion - Good drivers rely on looking out rear and side windows as well as checking rearview mirrors. When a driver lacks the ability to turn his head and shoulders to look outside, he may not see oncoming vehicles or obstacles traveling in the car's blind spot.

Reduced Reaction Time - As we age, we slow down, and reaction times diminish. Keeping extra space between the driver's and other cars can help reduce the likelihood of accidents, but there comes a time when reactions are too slow for road safety. Click here for a reaction time test that will show you graphically how far you travel after you see a red light!

How to Get (and Keep) the Keys

A few states require road tests for persons over 65 when their licenses are renewed. Additionally, some states require vision tests with license renewals. Consider yourself fortunate if you live in one of these states because it may be that the state will refuse to renew the elder's license. If you live elsewhere, here are a few tricks to try.

And what happened to my aunt? She got a ticket from a wonderful traffic officer whom we all blessed on a daily basis! Fearing the loss of her auto insurance, she voluntarily gave up driving.

Web Resources

Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully is a free booklet you can read online.

AARP offers a refresher course for elderly drivers as well as a number of other helpful resources. See their site at http://www.aarp.org/55alive/.

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has a terrific new site, seniordrivers.org, that you shouldn't miss if you're a senior driver or have a senior driver in your family. Exercises, examples of perceptual loss due to aging, emergency tips, and much, much more - all free. Please don't miss it!

For more in depth information on elderly drivers, see the OLR research report.

About the Author

Phyllis Staff is an experimental psychologist and the CEO of The Best Is Yet.Net, an internet company that helps seniors and caregivers find trustworthy residential care. She is the author of How to Find Great Senior Housing: A Roadmap for Elders and Those Who Love Them. She is also the daughter of a victim of Alzheimer's disease. Visit the author's web site at http://www.thebestisyet.net.

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