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When Is It Time to Give Up the Car Keys?

Senior woman holding car key and smiling, selective focusMost of us think we know when an aging loved one should stop driving, but most elderly people think they still can drive safely, and they strongly resist giving up the keys to the car. Well into his 90s, my father kept saying, “My kids took my car away from me!” He thought he could drive safely, even though he had trouble walking (poor reflexes and reaction time), he needed hearing aids but seldom wore them (couldn’t get cues from road sounds), had trouble turning his head very far to either side (couldn’t look over his shoulder to back up or change lanes), was easily distracted, and couldn’t always remember or recognize where he was. At 96, he’s stopped saying that, but I know he still misses the freedom and mobility that a driver’s license and the keys to the car gave him.

Will YOU know when it’s time for you to stop driving? The chances are good that the answer is “No!” Besides being the basis of our independence—something we are loathe to give up—one of the symptoms of the early stages of any type of dementia is to not be able to recognize that our driving skills or other physical and mental skills are not as good as they used to be. It’s not denial. It’s actually Not Knowing! My 77-year-old husband was told this by the geriatric neurologist who, after a series of tests, gave him the diagnosis of being in the early stages of dementia.

Warning signs. My husband had to take an on-road driving test. He passed it with a 4-point margin and still has a Utah license, but his geriatrician later told him that if he lived in California, his scores on the Neuro Psych test he took would cause the DMV to forbid him from driving. He advised him to be careful! Of course, I was not happy with my husband’s diagnosis, but I was fortified in my belief that, whenever possible, I should take over the driving, because the person administering the driving test gave advice related to some of the same problems I had observed, including:

  • Stay in the middle of the lane
  • Enter right-turn lanes as soon as possible
  • Accelerate more quickly when merging onto the freeway
  • Limit freeway driving, when possible
  • Watch the signs and don’t drive above or below the speed limit
  • Only drive in areas where you are familiar with both main roads and side streets
  • Don’t drive at night

State laws. A 2012 Kiplinger article reports, “Only 19 states make seniors renew their licenses more often than younger drivers. Half of those states cut eight- to ten-year renewal periods down to four to six years — only Illinois and New Mexico require annual renewal. Illinois is the only state to mandate that drivers retake the road test as they age.” In Virginia, the state where the author lives, “the only nod toward aging drivers’ safety is a required vision test after age 80, but licenses are good for eight years.” Because most states “sidestep the issue, it’s up to families to act when a loved one is no longer a safe driver.”

North Dakota drivers who are 70 years of age or older at the time their current driver license expires are generally required to renew their license in person at a local DMV office. There are no other restrictions on senior drivers in North Dakota. All licensees must take a vision test (see below) before renewing license. You may in certain situations be asked to take a written knowledge test, as well. 

The right approach. If there’s a problem, “Address it head-on,” says Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA. “Most people wait until after a crash and it’s too late, but you should act before an accident occurs.” Miriam Zucker, a geriatric care manager, suggests starting with the positives, emphasizing safety and perhaps the need to back off driving because of a medical condition. She suggests saying something like, “Dad, you’ve been a safe driver for 60 years, but with your cataracts, I know it’s harder for you to drive at night. If you got hurt or hurt someone else, that would be awful.”

Rather than disabling the car or hiding the keys, “Let the physician be the bad guy,” says Sharon Brangman, chief of geriatrics at Upstate Medical University, in Syracuse, N.Y. Rules governing physicians, however, vary from state to state. In some, including New York, doctors can’t contact the DMV regarding a patient without the patient’s permission. In others, such as New Jersey, doctors are required to report patients they don’t believe should be behind the wheel anymore. (To see the laws in your state and more information about elder driving safety, go to SeniorDriving.AAA.com.)

Good Luck!

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