Q. My father is turning eighty-nine in five months and our family is concerned that he is still driving. While he is in decent physical condition for his age and is witty and charming as ever, we can’t help but think it might be time for Dad to give up driving.
The problem is that Dad loves to drive and from what we can observe he seems to be doing fairly well, although he drives much slower then he used to and over the past year we have noticed minor scratches and dents to the car.
We have already approached Dad with the idea that it may no longer be safe for him to drive, but he laughs it off saying he drives better now than when he was in his thirties! While he is a still quite feisty and adorable, we remain worried that he can get into a serious accident and really hurt himself.
Any suggestions on how to approach this issue?
A. First, you should know that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are more than 35 million licensed drivers over the age of 65. While the actuaries that insurance companies rely on to determine driver risk for liability purposes, the fact remains that each driver is unique with respect to their physical and cognitive abilities to safely operate a motor vehicle. Notwithstanding, statistically, adults 75 years and older are at a much higher risk in getting into a car accident. In support of this statistic, studies have shown that health conditions that require continued use of cognitive affecting medications, combined with a decline in vision and hearing loss are the primary causes of collisions involving elderly drivers.
For a family caregiver, the thought of confronting a loved one and asking for their car keys can result in a highly charged and emotional face-off. For many elders, driving represents their last vestige of freedom at a time when their physical limitations have already deprived them of their physical independence.
Also keep in mind that many in the 75-year and older group aren’t even aware that their driving skills have declined. This is especially true when seniors are suffering from dementia and are unable to detect and appreciate their loss of driving skills.
One approach to this issue that we believe is most effective is to have the elder see a geriatric physician who will test the elders vision, coordination, cognitive and hearing abilities and whom understands the side effects some medications have on elders. It is much easier to have the doctor speak with the elder directly, this way, the recommendation to give up driving is seen as medically justified and informed and not coming from an overly concerned family member.
Here are some suggestions on how to approach the elder. First, be respectful, sensitive, understanding, caring and courteous. Avoid any path that leads to confrontation. Remember losing the ability to drive means a loss of independence. However the caregiver must assume a realistic position relative to the risks involved for both the elder and for the general safety of other motorists.
Here is what you need to look for when determining whether the elder is at risk for impaired driving:
Is the elder driving slower then normal and is easily distracted?
Has the elder been involved in minor accidents?
Is the elder on medication that alters balance, perception, or wakefulness?
Has the elder been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or moderate-to-severe Dementia?
Is the elder getting lost easily or is unable to remember specific landmarks or routs?
Has the elder been pulled over by law enforcement for unsafe driving?
Please keep in mind that for those who have spent a lifetime driving, operating a vehicle still seems like second-nature to them and rarely are they accepting of the idea of losing the freedom that driving affords them. So please be sensitive to their needs in this regard.
Now that we covered the emotional issues surrounding approaching this conversation with Dad, we need to understand and comply with the specific rules as set out by the Department of Motor Vehicles in California as it relates to older drivers.
Specifically, California requires drivers 70 and older to renew their driver’s license in person. In addition, an older driver must take both a vision and written test at the time they personally go to renew their license. This itself, going it alone, is part of the screening process.
The DMV also takes requests from family members to conduct unsafe driver investigations as it relates to older drivers. It requires however that a doctor examine the older driver, ideally a geriatric physician, and report any cognitive impairment(s) which may make the older driver unsafe to drive.
Another DMV rule requires drivers, age 70 and older, to personally renew their driver’s license every five years, especially, if there are visible indications of driver impairment from sources such as a traffic officer, physician, or a concerned family member.
The DMV has several options ranging from restricting the driver to a geographic area, to outright revocation of the persons drivers license. Public safety is always of paramount importance in making this determination.
In California, there are other common requirements the DMV may impose on older drivers including: no freeway driving, requiring an additional right side mirror, and prohibiting nighttime driving. Also, where indicated, the DMV may insist on the driver obtaining a physical support brace to ensure a safe driving position as well as requiring that special eyeglasses be used when driving.
Should disputes arise between the older driver and the DMV, California has an Ombudsman Program that helps resolve theses issues on an informal basis. The goal of the program is to keep older adults driving as long as they can do so safely. The operative word here is safely but within the context of ensuring that senior drivers are treated fairly and respectfully, and which is consistent with the laws and regulations of our state.
The Ombudsmen offices are located throughout the state. You can contact them at any of the following locations:
Los Angeles, Oxnard: 310-412-6103
Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego: 714-705-1588
Sacramento, Northern California: 916-657-6464
San Francisco, Oakland: 510-563-8998
Should you have any additional questions concerning safe driving for seniors you can visit the DMV