Channel your 16-year-old self and you can probably hear your father’s voice in your head: “Driving is a privilege, not a right!”

Learning to drive is indeed a rite of passage for most American teenagers, one that causes parental anxiety and often puts more than one gray hair on parents’ heads. So it is not without irony that decades later, many adult children are faced with a difficult reverse-parenting conversation when they begin to realize that their own aging mother or father is no longer safe to be behind the steering wheel of a car.

Startling stats

According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), with the exception of teen drivers, older seniors have the highest crash death rate per mile driven, despite the fact that seniors drive fewer miles than their younger counterparts. While many aging drivers are quite safe behind the wheel–observing speed limits and driving defensively–for those who do have a crash, their fatality rates are 17 times higher than those of 25 to 64-year-olds, primarily because older people’s overall health is typically more fragile, as are their bones.

Because Americans are living longer, more and more seniors are outliving (by seven to 10 years) their ability to safely operate a vehicle. Age-related conditions like arthritis can limit range of motion; normal cognitive decline as well as certain medications can slow reflexes and reaction time; and vision changes can make it tough to read road signs or see at night.

Many older drivers are cognizant of their progressive physical limitations and thus avoid situations that could put them at risk, driving less after dark, during rush hour, or in inclement weather, and simply avoiding highways and tricky intersections. So how can you tell that it is time to be more assertive with an aging loved one and voice your concern about their declining driving capabilities?

Is it time?

AAA gives the following parameters to help you decide if it is time to have a serious conversation with an older loved one about their safety on the roads. They suggest periodically taking a ride as the passenger of the senior driver in your life to assess their abilities, and they also advise looking for these two common warning signs:

·         Because tickets and citations can help predict the risk of a wreck, you should be concerned if the driver has been issued two or more traffic tickets or warnings in the past two years.

·         If the senior driver has been involved in two or more collisions or “near-misses” in the past two years, it is a big red flag. The most common mishaps for older adults with diminishing driving skills, depth perception, or reaction time are rear-end collisions, fender-benders in parking lots, and side-swipe crashes while turning across traffic.

Easing the blow

If you determine that it is no longer safe for an aging loved one to drive–for their own sake and the safety of others on the road–it can make for a very difficult, even combative conversation. Here are some ways to deal with their anger or despair, as suggested by AAA:

·         Don’t get defensive. Listen and allow the senior driver to express their feelings and emotions, be it anger, sadness, fear, and/or frustration. This can help you understand how and why the conversation has upset them.

·         Show empathy. Explain that you understand that this is a distressing topic. Suggest focusing on ways that you can work together to help keep your loved one safe without limiting their freedom.

·         Do not lecture or make demands. Unless ordered by a court, you can’t force an older driver to relinquish their car keys.  Alienating your loved one will only decrease your ability to help them.

·         Be objective. It may be worthwhile for the senior to take part in a self-rating program or get an objective assessment from a professional driving instructor.

Plan ahead

Change is usually difficult, so it is wise to work together with your aging loved one to create a safe driving action plan before any problems actually exist. This allows the transition from driver to passenger to be more gradual.

Perhaps the senior starts with self-imposed restrictions on when or where they drive themselves (e.g., eliminate nighttime driving or highway travel). Next, they may want to begin increasing their comfort level with using other forms of transportation (buses, trains…even Uber) before they need to exclusively depend upon them. You and they may even decide that it is time to change the older driver’s living situation–like moving them to a continuing care retirement community (CCRC)–creating less need to drive at all in the future.

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