How to Talk to Your Senior Parents about Unsafe Driving (Part 1)

When it’s time to talk…

Mom, 83, gets a driving ticket for failure to yield; Dad, 88,  sideswipes a car trying to parallel park; Aunt Teresa, vision impaired and 78 refuses to go faster than 20 miles an hour, oblivious to the bing of the turn signal left on for 2 miles while the traffic backs up behind her.  Uncle Nick, 91, in great shape but hearing impaired, fails to pull over to let an ambulance pass. When it becomes clear that not only are they unsafe, but so are other drivers on the road.

Oh, the dreaded talk about relinquishing the driver’s license that spelled “freedom” since age 16.  When and how do we approach our elderly loved ones when it is apparent that they are unsafe driving?  Our group of elders today who are currently facing the issue of when to quit driving lived through the Great Depression and WWII. Many people had cars during and after the depression but in not nearly the numbers that acquired them after WWII (during the mid-1940s through the 1950s). As a group, they did not have to confront their parents about relinquishing driving privileges. For the most part, their parents did not have the life expectancy that we enjoy today, so the kinds of conversations we are discussing here simply did not take place.

It would be nice if we could pass on the sensitive conversation to their physicians so that they could be the bad guy.  Wouldn’t it be even better if they themselves recognized that their reflexes and judgement are not what they used to be.  But, as luck would have it and, as our parents age into their sunset years, their need to be independent clouds their best judgement.  Headstrong and determined, the conversation stalls, leaving us frustrated and worried.

The Dangers Involved

When we read about the unfortunate and yet avoidable fatalities highlighted below, we hope that our parents are reading the same article and that  a “bell” may go off signaling to them that it’s unsafe and time to retire the car.

  • In July 2003, an 86-year-old man drove his 1982 Buick into a crowd of pedestrians shopping at an open-air farmers market in Santa Monica, California, killing 10 and injuring more than 50 people.
  • In October 2005, a 93-year-old man struck a pedestrian in St. Petersburg, Florida, and did not notice the body hanging out his windshield until a tollbooth operator stopped him.

Why is relinquishing a driver’s license such a problem? Why are our elderly taking such risks, not only for themselves but also for their loved ones and others on the road?  Most people will outlive their driving ability by about ten years. The most at-risk driver is the one with cognitive impairment. The American Medical Association (AMA) regards the safety of older drivers as a public health issue. They estimate that the per-mile fatality rate for drivers over 85-years old is nine times as great as drivers 25 to 69 years old.

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