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Giving up the Car Keys: Not Always a Black and White Issue

separator After an older driver plowed his car into a crowded market in California and killed 10 people, the topic of older people’s ability to drive has been on a lot of people’s minds. The truth is that the older you get, the higher the accident and fatality rate. Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of injury-related death in people 65 and older. And per mile driven, the fatality rate for drivers 85 and older is nine times higher than the rate for drivers 25 to 69 years old.

Driving requires three abilities:
  • Seeing well
  • Paying attention
  • Responding quickly

These abilities tend to diminish as you age. Vision usually gets a little worse. Your body is stiffer, so it may be harder to turn the steering wheel, press on the gas and brake pedals or turn your head far enough to see oncoming traffic. Medications can make you feel dizzy or drowsy.

But most of the time, the changes that come with aging are gradual. Most people learn naturally to adjust their driving style. Many are able to drive well into their old age. Sometimes that means that you don’t drive at night anymore. Or that you stop driving on highways so you can avoid higher speeds.

It’s important to know what the signs are that your driving might not be what it once was, so that you know what adjustments you need to make.

Do you have any of the warning signs?
Here are some of the signs that driving has become more of a challenge than it used to be:

  • Having trouble seeing signs and signals until you’ve passed them by
  • Feeling that other cars “appear out of nowhere”
  • Feeling stressed out by driving
  • Feeling that other drivers are going too fast
  • Being uncomfortable at busy intersections
  • Feeling nervous about making left turns
  • Needing help from passengers
  • Getting lost, even in familiar areas
  • Driving too fast or too slow
  • Making wide turns or putting the car in odd positions on the road
  • Having accidents and near-misses

It takes honesty to restrict or give up driving
You know best whether you’re eyesight is no longer good enough for driving or if you should no longer drive at night. You know how many close calls you’ve had, and you know if your reaction time is slow.

You also know that giving up driving means giving up a lot of independence. That’s usually why people hang on to their drivers’ licenses, even though they know it’s not safe to drive anymore. They keep on driving and hope that nothing serious happens.

One thing’s for sure: most family members and doctors dislike the idea of talking to older people about their driving abilities. If you have loved ones who are asking you not to drive, it’s probably time to take a hard look at your skills.

Take steps to keep up your driving know-how
One thing all seniors who drive should know is that it’s often possible to keep up your driving skills. Mature driving classes or appointments with a driver rehabilitation specialist can help you learn how to adapt your driving to the normal aging process.

The American Association of Retired Persons offers Driver Safety Program classes nationwide. Click here to go the Web page with a link to driving classes near you. You can also find a class by calling 1-888-AARP-NOW (1-888-227-7669). The AARP course lasts 8 hours. It’s given in 2 sessions, 4 hours each. Classes generally cost ten dollars. You may qualify for a discount on your insurance after you complete the course.

When health conditions affect driving
Aging is a gradual process, but sometimes there are sudden changes in your driving skills. Someone could be driving just fine one day and have a stroke the next. Or dementia could start to set in, affecting your driving skills more dramatically. Even when these kinds of events happen, there’s still a chance that you’ll be able to continue driving, at least for a while.

If a health problem has suddenly affected your ability to drive safely, see if you can make an appointment with a driver rehabilitation specialist. These professionals can help you learn to make adjustments to your current deficits. They can tell you whether it’s safe to get back on the road, whether you should make certain restrictions or whether it’s time to make alternative plans for getting around.

Your doctor, your local agency on aging or a senior center near you should be able to help you find a driver rehabilitation specialist who can work with your particular needs.

For numbers and Web sites of agencies that might be able to help you, see our listing at the end of this article.

Plan ahead for when you may not be able to drive
It’s always a good idea to be prepared. Find out what your options are for getting around if there comes a time when you can’t drive anymore. Friends and family members may be willing to take you on errands. There’s always public transportation too, so find out about bus and subway schedules. And be sure to contact organizations that serve the senior population, such as senior centers, churches and synagogues or agencies that focus on the aging population.

Here are some agencies that can help connect you with services:

American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety
You can call the toll-free number or visit the Web site to order free booklets about helping an older driver.

Area Agency on Aging

Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists
1-800-290-2344 or

National Association of Private Geriatric Care Managers

National Association of Social Workers

The American Medical Association; The Association for Driver Rehabilitation; National Highway Transportation Safety Administration
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