Stereotypes about older drivers abound. For example, they drive too slowly. They’re unsafe. They’re not aware of their own limitations.
The reality is more complex.
Nearly half of all U.S. drivers are over age 65. Older drivers often choose to drive less, stop driving at night or make other changes for comfort and safety. The risk of fatal crashes does rise for drivers over age 70, per mile traveled. Yet overall, drivers age 65 to 74 have fewer fatal crashes than their 35 to 54 year-old counterparts. And many age-related changes that affect driving can be reversed or addressed.
“There is no specific age when a person is too old to drive,” says Neil McCallum, the Wisconsin State Coordinator of AARP’s Driver Safety Program. “The ability to drive safely is dependent on an individual’s cognitive, physical and emotional abilities.”
When health or physical changes make driving less safe, older adults and their families may not know how to respond—or even how to start the conversation.
“Driving is independence and freedom,” stresses McCallum. “Most of us have been driving for decades. It’s hard to give up something that’s so natural.”
Healthcare professionals can normalize driving discussions by bringing the topic up early. However, providers tend to wait until problems arise. Many providers say they don’t have time during appointments or need more information. Others worry about hurting their relationship with their patients.
Sharing information about community resources can be a positive way to steer the conversation.
AARP addresses driving safety in three ways: by offering driver safety classes, working with occupational therapists on “car fit” events, and giving advice about family driving discussions.
“The goal of the AARP Smart Driver course is to allow older individuals to stay on the road as long as possible, safely,” says McCallum. “A lot has changed since we started driving. Our bodies, vehicles and road conditions have all changed significantly. The AARP course refreshes driving skills while pointing out those changes, helping people adapt and building their confidence.”
Roundabouts are often a hot topic of discussion.
“Before the course, everyone says that they don’t like roundabouts,” says McCallum. After he describes “why a roundabout is safer than a four-way intersection and how to navigate them,” many people change their minds.
The CarFit program, offered by AARP, AAA and the American Occupational Therapy Association, provides information and recommendations, based on how each driver’s car “fits” them. Even small adjustments of the driver’s seat, mirrors or seat belt can improve driving safety.
“For an airbag to safely deploy,” says McCallum, “you need 10 inches between your chest and the steering wheel. Most people don’t think about that when they get into a car. And when people share a car, they need to adjust the seat position, mirrors and head rest each time so that it fits them, and not the other driver.”
Occupational therapists can help with larger automobile adjustments, such as pedal extensions. Local Aging and Disability Resource Centers (ADRCs) can provide information about formal driving assessments and transportation alternatives.
Just like providers, many families are reluctant to start what can be an emotional and contentious discussion about driving. To help families, AARP and the Hartford have online materials and local workshops called “We Need to Talk.”
If family members are concerned about older drivers, the most important thing is to “observe, not assume,” says McCallum.
“Just getting up in age doesn’t make your parent or loved one an unsafe driver,” he says. “Ride along with them in the car, follow in another vehicle or look for scratches or dings in their car. Keep track of what you find, especially changes over time. This may come in handy when you talk with them.”
If there are real safety concerns, “don’t be confrontational or accusing,” advises McCallum. “Help the older adult maintain their dignity. Try to understand their transportation needs and how they could be met. It can also help to compare the cost of owning and operating a car with bus or taxi rides.”
“It’s never too early” to start discussing driving safety, says McCallum. “In the event that someday Mom or Dad should not be behind the wheel,” you’ll have a greater understanding of the transportation options available.