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When Senior Driving Is No Longer Safe

My 15-year old niece just got her learner's permit to drive in Atlanta, a reminder of the passage of time that stuns me nearly as much as my step-brother. (When did she become old enough to drive - didn't she just turn ten?)

As I laughed with my mother about the new gray hairs my step-brother will undoubtedly develop during the next year, she remarked that I should get used to this feeling, because as we age, time seems to fly even faster and faster.

That got me thinking. Yes, time certainly does fly - no news there. But someday the tables may turn and my niece might have to become the chauffeur for her aging parents when they become too old or infirm to drive without posing a danger to themselves or others. I wondered how many adult children each day realize the need to convince an independence-minded parent to give up a driving license.

More children than I expected, that's how many. Americans are living longer, and more and more seniors are outliving their ability to safely operate a vehicle. The CDC reports that nearly 36,000,000 (yep, that's million) U.S. drivers are aged 65 and over, and that in a single year, an average of 586 are injured every day in automobile crashes.[1]

Seniors are often either unwilling to admit that their abilities are waning, or they don't even realize it's happening to them. So, what to do when it's happening to your parents?

The American Automobile Association offers suggestions for the delicate problem of convincing a parent it's time to change driving habits. Some ideas include:

  • Taking a ride with your aging motorist while watching for risky driving behaviors. Look for things such as confusing the gas and break pedals, forgetting to turn signals, driving too slow for conditions, and so on.
  • Checking the parent's driving record - has there been any increase in problems? An increase in traffic tickets? Accidents? Getting lost or confused while driving?
  • Monitoring medications - is the parent using any prescription or over-the counter medications that can impair driving, either alone or in combination with other drugs? You may need to talk to a physician or pharmacist to learn more.

Now for the hard part. Starting "The Conversation" with a parent, especially a stubborn or proud parent, can be challenging indeed. Yet a caring adult child wants to find a reasonable balance between the parent's desire for independence and the safety of all concerned. Here too, AAA has some ideas that might be helpful in not offering or alienating a parent:[2]

  • Communicate openly yet respectfully.
  • Don't make generalizations about older drivers that automatically find fault with your parent.
  • Allow your parent to express their feelings and listen attentively.
  • Be sensitive to their desire for privacy. Make this a one-on-one conversation.
  • Ask the parent for permission before discussing the atter with any third party.

Recognize and accept that change is difficult, especially for seniors. It may be a good idea to have a plan in place before it's actually needed. Perhaps a slow transition is better than an abrupt loss of driving priileges. Maybe one can start by curtailing night driving, or expressway driving, or driving with several passengers.

In the meantime, I've got to convince my step-brother that his daughter's coming of driving practice might be very important in developing good driving habits for more than the obvious - in several decades, it's likely to be she who's transporting her old dad to and fro.



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