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When Should I Take the Car Keys From my Elderly Parents?

Merritt Whitley
By Merritt WhitleyJuly 10, 2020
Elderly man driving his car and honking his horn in an attempt to stay safe.n

Driving a car may feel like second nature, but aging may affect your reflexes, eyesight, cognition, and overall safety at the wheel. Drivers 80 and older also have the highest rates of automobile deaths, according to AAA.

Determining whether to take the keys away from elderly parents can be an emotional process — but there are ways to make it easier. By having conversations and detecting the warning signs now, you can better protect your mom and dad, as well as others on the road.

Discover the risks of senior driving, signs your parent is unsafe behind the wheel, elderly driver’s license renewal regulations, and how to potentially make a difficult conversation a little easier.

The high risk for senior drivers

Many activities in our daily lives involve some degree of risk — and driving is no different. But for seniors, health conditions and other age-related factors can increase the risk of accidents.

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Compared to drivers age 24-64, older adults are twice as likely to report having a medical problem that makes it difficult to travel, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In 2018, about 19% of all traffic fatalities were people older than 65, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). While injuries and crashes are more common in young drivers, older people are more susceptible to driving-related fatalities, according to AAA.

What signs indicate my elderly parents are not safe driving?

If your parent is struggling with their sight, hearing, or memory, driving may put them and others at risk. The NHTSA recommends finding out whether your parent:

  • Is getting lost on familiar routes
  • Has received tickets or violations
  • Has difficulty reading or recognizing road signs
  • Has been in any accidents, or has almost had an accident
  • Can hear emergency sirens or people honking

Changes in health or demeanor could also be risk factors. A mental or physical decline can cause a driver to lose focus or control of the vehicle.

Warning signs include:

  • Forgetfulness or confusion
  • Trouble walking or following instructions
  • Dizziness or shortness of breath
  • Loss of coordination
  • Joint stiffness
  • Unusual agitation or aggression

When should senior drivers hand over the keys?

Every driver is different — regardless of age. Some 60-year-olds may have poor vision and other health issues, while some 80-year-olds are perfectly healthy and safe on the road.

Consider the following factors when making a decision: 

  • Diseases
    Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia can affect judgment and driving ability. If your parent has been diagnosed with a form of dementia or you’re noticing early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, consult their physician. Seniors with diabetes also need to be cleared to drive by their physician.
  • Medications
    Some prescription drugs can cause drowsiness or affect a person’s reaction time. Consult your parent’s physician to determine if their medications put them at risk. You can help them keep track using the CDC’s medicine risk fact sheet.
  • Physical ability
    Are your aging parents staying active? Driving takes control and dexterity. Inactivity can cause muscle deterioration, which can affect a person’s agility, coordination, and strength.
  • Vision
    Do they suffer from cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, or macular degeneration? Vision problems and limitations can make driving dangerous.

Check your state laws regarding driver’s license renewal for seniors

Each state has different driving laws for seniors. Some states require an eye exam every five years, while others require senior citizens to retake their driving test.

The driver’s license renewal process for seniors can include a:

  • Written test
  • Vision test
  • Driving test

Many states — but not all — require people 65 and older to renew their driver’s license in person rather than online or by mail. This enables licensing officials to look for signs of health conditions that could affect their driving ability.

Generally, older drivers must renew their license more frequently than younger people. In Missouri, for example, people age 70 and above are required to renew their driver’s license every three years.

Conduct a safety test for senior drivers at home

In addition to state driving tests, you can check for potential warning signs at home. It can be helpful to make observations during different times of the day, in varying weather conditions, and in traffic.

Here are a couple ways to give yourself a gut check.

Ride with them

Be a passenger in your elderly parent’s car on a regular basis. Check to see how they control the vehicle, and ask yourself:

  • Do they stay in the correct lane?
  • How are they handling turns?
  • Do they use their turn signals?
  • Are they staying within the speed limit?
  • How does the drive feel overall?

Check the vehicle

Does the car have dents or scrapes? This is often a good indicator of how your elderly parent is driving and whether they’ve had any collisions.

Remember that this at-home test can be a fun outing, rather than an interrogation. By taking a trip to the store, you can quietly make observations without being intimidating. The NHTSA also has a self-assessment for senior drivers you can use to look for signs to help your parents.

Seek professional advice about your elderly parents’ driving

It certainly doesn’t hurt to ask for a professional opinion. If you notice potential warning signs, but you aren’t completely sure if you should take the car keys away, consider talking to:

  • Their primary care physician
    Ask their doctor whether your parent’s health is good enough for them to drive safely. If the doctor says they shouldn’t be on the road, this may be a justified reason to take the keys away.
  • A driving rehabilitation expert
    An expert can also assess senior cognition, hearing, and motor skills, and they can even make an on-road assessment. To find a driving rehabilitation expert, visit the American Occupational Therapy’s searchable database for certified driving specialists.

Additional considerations for senior driving safety

Staying proactive in your parent’s driving journey can make a big difference, and there are many flexible and alternative ways to help.

Here are some additional ways to keep your elderly parents safe:

  • Arrange for alternate transportation
    Ride apps like Uber and Lyft make it easy to get a ride any day or time. Many senior living communities also provide regular transportation for seniors. The National Center on Senior Transportation has a full list of additional transportation options for seniors.
  • Make sure they have good vehicle
    Is their car safe and easy to use? Does it have reliable technology? If your parent has a disability, has the car been adapted to fit their needs? For example, a seat-back cushion can provide a better view of the road. Learn more about adapting your car for disabilities, and discover the safest cars for seniors.
  • Find a driving class for seniors
    Local classes may be available to help keep your parent’s mind and motor skills sharp on the road. AAA offers a driving improvement course for seniors, which provides safety tips and covers medication, drowsiness, and other driving topics relevant to seniors.

Have regular conversations about safety

If you notice changes in your parents’ driving ability or overall health, talk to them. AAA recommends these tips:

  • Talk one-on-one
    Sometimes getting the entire family involved can feel overwhelming. Set aside some quiet time to speak with your parent privately and directly.
  • Be respectful
    Avoid making generalizations or saying, “You’re a bad driver.” Let them know you’re supportive and want to find ways to help them stay safe and independent.
  • Avoid assumptions
    Focus on the facts. If they have a medical condition that’s affecting their safety at the wheel, focus on the specific obstacle at hand. Ask, “How can we work together to find a safe solution?”

Making a final decision for your parents

Driving is one of the most powerful symbols of independence — no one wants to give up their freedom. Parents often hand over their keys to their teenage children, and experiencing role reversal later in life can be difficult.

Have conversations, look for signs, plan ahead, and — if the time comes for you to take the keys away from your elderly parents — be prepared and commit to what’s best. Remain empathetic, and use A Place for Mom’s constructive conversational tips about how to take car keys away from an elderly parent.

Merritt Whitley
Merritt Whitley

Merritt Whitely is an editor at A Place for Mom. She developed health content for seniors at Hearing Charities of America and the National Hearing Aid Project. She’s also managed multiple print publications, blogs, and social media channels for seniors as the marketing manager at Sertoma, Inc.

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