Talking to Older Drivers About Their Abilities and Safety
I recently handled a case for an older gentleman who had caused a car accident while driving. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it had made him realize that maybe it was time to stop driving and start taking alternate modes of transportation. A constructive decision on his part, although it’s not always the older driver who first reaches this realization.
Years ago, when my grandmother started having problems driving, it was other family members, not her, who first noticed she was having difficulties. Started with a pattern of scratches and dents on her car, followed by her mentioning how she was getting lost more often on streets she used to know so well. That’s when we decided it was time to have a family chat with Grams about her driving, which we wanted to do with respect as she had been fiercely independent all her life.
If you’re concerned about an older driver in your family, I’ll review some warning signs of unsafe driving, followed by tips for handling “the talk.” Remember, it’s not only for their safety, but also for others.
Indicators of Unsafe Driving
These might have been occurring gradually over time, or perhaps they came about suddenly due to illness or medication:
- Is he/she experiencing eyesight problems, such as difficulty seeing at night, blurred vision or not seeing signs or lights until they are close?
- Any hearing problems, such as not hearing another car’s horn honking or an approaching ambulance?
- Is there a pattern of getting lost or missing streets or exits that the person has commonly used?
- An increased number of dents and scrapes on the car? Have there been recent traffic tickets or warnings?
- Erratic driving due to the older person getting more easily frustrated, confused or overwhelmed while driving?
- Is he/she forgetting how to do basic tasks, such as working the turn signals, windshield wipers, braking in time for a stop sign or red light?
Tips for Discussing Your Concerns
As I mentioned above, make it a priority to be respectful. It’s possible your older relative may actually be relieved that the topic is being brought up, but it could also be that he/she feels that their independence is being threatened. Below are ideas for handling the discussion:
- If possible, include other family members or close friends. Or perhaps have the discussion with a more objective third party, such as the older person’s physician.
- If feasible, discuss a gradual transition. Dramatic changes in life can be upsetting no matter how young or old we are, so consider a transition as long as safe driving isn’t an issue. For example, perhaps the older person stops driving on freeways or driving at night.
- Be prepared with facts. Rather than make a sweeping statement such as, “You’re getting too old to drive,” instead refer to incidences that have occurred, such as, “You’ve mentioned recently that you’ve been getting lost more while you’re driving,” or “I’ve noticed several times recently that you’re driving slowly, noticeably below the speed limit.”
- Discuss the positive aspects of not driving. For example, saving money on gas, car maintenance, and so forth; less stress driving in traffic; increasing one’s social circle through shared rides; and likely a happier, slower pace of life without a car.
- Also be prepared with transportation alternatives. Let the older person know if you or other family members can help with driving him/her places. If not, research ahead of time other transportation — some cities have senior citizen organizations that offer transportation services, or some cities offer shuttle services, and so forth. For those who use wheelchairs, there are special, motorized chairs that a person can use for short trips to the store, a friend’s house, etc.
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