Is it Time to Stop Driving? Having the Conversation in Advance


Is It Time to Stop Driving? Having the Conversation in Advance
by: Soud Options 

Giving up driving is usually an emotional issue for seniors because driving often signifies independence. As difficult as it may be to bring up the issue of a parent’s driving, it sometimes becomes necessary. When we think of advanced care planning or having 'The Conversation', end-of-life wishes come to mind, but those conversation should expand to talk about more than just the very end. On average we have had 30 years added to our life expectancy. As such, we have to plan for what those years will look like. It can be a gift to families to have difficult conversations before they become a problem so the elderly loved one can participate in the conversation and decision-making process. A simple questions to start the conversations is, "In the future, if we ever noticed that you were endangering yourself and others by driving, what would you want us to do?" 

How do I know if a parent’s driving is a problem?

It is usually recommended that you ride with the individual to observe their driving at least every six months, as long as you feel comfortable doing so.  Here are warning signs to watch for:

  • Nervousness, insecurity, or hesitancy while driving
  • Increasingly frequent "close calls" (i.e. almost crashing)
  • Other drivers honking at the elder more frequently
  • Getting lost more frequently
  • Difficulty judging gaps in traffic at intersections and on highway entrance/exit ramps
  • Difficulty seeing the sides of the road when looking straight ahead (i.e. cars or people seem to come "out of nowhere" more frequently)
  • Difficulty staying in the lane of travel
  • Trouble paying attention to or violating signals, road signs and pavement markings
  • Slower response time to unexpected situations
  • Trouble moving foot from gas to brake pedal or confusing the two pedals
  • Difficulty turning to check over shoulder while backing up or changing lanes

What can I do if I see evidence of a problem?

Talk with your parent.  The sooner you begin the conversation, the better.  Tell them that you need to bring up a difficult topic.  Describe what you have seen in specific, objective terms.  It can sometimes help to write this up beforehand. 

It can be helpful to have researched alternate forms of transportation that can be presented during the discussion.  These can include rides from family and friends, public transportation, paratransit services, or taxis.  Many communities have volunteer transportation programs for seniors.  (It is a good idea to accompany someone when they first use alternate transportation.)

If the driving problem is minor, a refresher course can be suggested.  The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has a Driver Safety Program, or you may find other programs in your community.

In some cases driving can be limited rather than stopped.  For example, some elders may do alright on residential or frequently traveled routes, but not on highways or unfamiliar roads.  Some may have night vision problems, in which case they may still be safe driving during the day.

If your parent will agree to a driving test, consult with their physician for a referral for testing.  Many outpatient occupational therapy clinics, particularly those associated with a hospital or medical center, test the physical and mental skills needed for safe driving, such as reaction time.  The occupational therapist will usually send a report with the results to the physician. 

You can also go to the web link to search for an occupational therapy driving specialist.

If your parent is going to have a road test, it is important that the tester makes it a priority to help  them feel comfortable, and to have them drive their usual routes. 

What if my parent refuses to be tested or give up their driving?

If the problem warrants more than a refresher course, and your parent refuses to be tested or give up their driving, you can ask their physician to tell your parent they need to be tested (or limit or give up driving).  Physicians will sometimes write a “prescription” for testing or for the elder to stop driving.  A physician can also notify the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) of the problem, which will generally result in the DMV requiring a re-test of the driver.

If you are unable to enlist the help of a physician, you can notify the DMV of the problem.  In most cases they will honor a request not to mention to the elder that you called.

If you absolutely have to, you can also remove the distributor cap or have a notch put in the car keys so they won’t work.  Allowing the elder to keep their keys may help them feel more secure. 

Other sources of information

  • The following web link can provide helpful information:
  • Click Here to hear NPR's story on Talk of the Nation called, "Taking the Care Keys Away from Older Drivers". Guests include a professor of ferontology and a professor of medicine. 

Published on February 22, 2013.