ParentCare » Vol. 11

Difficult Conversations with Older Drivers about Driving Safety

By Fred Misilo

Within the last three months in Massachusetts, there has been a minimum of nine serious car accidents involving older drivers that have resulted in deaths, including two incidents where children were struck and killed in crosswalks. These crashes have sparked debate about whether older drivers should be more strictly regulated. Despite this, state and national data seems to suggest that older drivers account for a smaller percentage than other age groups. In fact, the actual number of accidents involving older drivers decreases as age increases. This decline is attributed to self-imposed limitations such as driving fewer miles, avoiding driving in bad weather and at night, and steering clear of high volume traffic. However, these statistics don’t tell the full story. Medical conditions, medication and reduced physical capacity can increase the risk of accidents and injury among older adults, especially after age 75, when the risk of being involved in a collision increases for every mile driven. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles takes an age neutral position by asserting that one’s ability to drive is determined by one’s physical and mental ability, not by their age.

Many people worry about an older relative driving but find it hard to raise the issue. If you have an older relative who is driving, there are some fairly obvious warning signs to be aware of which are described below. If some of these obvious warning signs are happening with an older relative, it’s time to talk ~ as difficult as that may appear to be. You may be saving a life and/or avoiding a lawsuit or more serious legal liability.

(See insert box at end of article).

Also, the Registry of Motor Vehicles has published a Safe Driver Checklist at

Beginning the conversation is the first step in keeping your older relative and others safe from a potentially serious car crash causing property damage, serious physical injury or death. In a perfect world, first conversations should start early with occasional and frank dialogue about the need for safety and eventual modification to one’s driving. However, normally the need for a conversation comes up when something occurs, such as a health change, self-regulation of driving, a car accident or a near miss.

Some conversation openers, suggested by a joint study done by The Hartford and MIT, include:

1. “Have you asked your doctor about the effects of your new medication on your driving?”

Many medications have an impact on one’s ability to process information. Reaction time matters when driving. According to The Hartford/MIT report, almost 75% of older adults think that a significant change in their health is a legitimate reason to have a discussion about driving.

2. “I am glad you cut down on night driving. I’d never want you to drive when it’s too risky or when you’re not comfortable.”

If your older relative proactively self-restricts his or her driving, praise him or her. Don’t ignore it or, even worse, don’t make any negative statements if that person chooses to leave a family gathering before dark.

3. “That was a close call yesterday. I worry about your safety on the road.”

According to The Hartford/MIT study, 50% of older adults said that having a serious accident is an opportunity to start a conversation and 33% said a minor accident or near miss should trigger a conversation.

The Hartford and MIT study found that 50% of married drivers prefer to hear about driving concerns from their spouses with their doctors a close second, followed by adult children. Many doctors, however, do not believe they are the best source for making decisions about driving. Doctors can, however, assess diminished visual, cognitive and motor skills and refer the driver to an assessment program for evaluation. A brochure of such assessment programs in Massachusetts is available from the Registry of Motor Vehicles website noted above.

Once the conversation has begun, the older driver is likely to express strong emotions. According to The Hartford/MIT study, nearly 25% of older adults reported feeling sad or depressed while less than 10% reported responding with anger. Remember, the loss or modification in driving means fewer trips outside the home, increased dependence on others, potentially becoming a burden, and fewer social opportunities. Since a conversation is a two-way street, the family member initiating the conversation is likely to experience anger, frustration, and guilt. The Hartford/MIT study suggests keeping a calm response, don’t postpone it because of fear or guilt, be prepared to have several conversations, and remember it is more important to avoid car crashes than to avoid unpleasant conversations. Also, be prepared to discuss transportation alternatives such as family members agreeing to drive for specified trips, using public transportation, and the use of taxis.

If you find that the older driver isn’t willing to acknowledge his or her driving is a serious problem, it may be necessary to deliver more direct appeals to persuade the high risk driver not to drive, such as:

1. “Even if you’re not at fault, you could be seriously injured or killed.” Older adults have less capacity to endure physical trauma of an accident. It is recommended not to over-dramatize this fact, but to pose it as a matter-of-fact possibility.

2. “I know you would feel terrible if someone were hurt when you were driving“ or “I can’t imagine what it would be like if you hurt someone while you were driving.” Sometimes, guilt works or, more tactfully put, concern for others is a strong motivator. In addition to the human and emotional cost of a car crash, there are enormous financial and legal implications of such an event.

3. “I am afraid to let the grandchildren ride with you.” This message delivers a strong point that needs no further explanation.

4. “Let’s let others decide.” By taking the conversation out of the family, the conversation may be less emotional and more objective. A conversation with a physician or a driving evaluation through AARP, AAA or driving school or evaluation center can provide objective information from neutral third parties. This objective data may provide surprising information to the older driver who has been in denial of his or her diminished safe driving skills.

When an older driver is doggedly resistant to making any change in his or her driving habits, a more aggressive approach may be necessary. An interested party can report a potentially unfit driver to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Such a report must be in writing and must be signed by the person making the report. Also, the report is legally a public record so, if requested, a copy of the report must be released to the person about whom the complaint was filed.

Warning Signs for Older Drivers

1. Decrease in confidence while driving.

2. Difficulty turning to see when backing up.

3. Riding the brake.

4. Easily distracted while driving.

5. Other drivers often honk horns.

6. Incorrect signaling.

7. Parking inappropriately.

8. Hitting curbs.

9. Scrapes or dents on the car, mailbox or garage.

10. Increased agitation or irritation when driving.

11. Failure to notice important activity on the road.

12. Failure to notice traffic signs.

13. Trouble making turns.

14. Driving at inappropriate speeds.

15. Not anticipating potential dangerous situations.

16. Uses a “co-pilot”.

17. Bad judgment on making left hand turns.

18. Near misses.

19. Delayed response to unexpected situations.

20. Moving into wrong lane.

21. Difficulty maintaining lane position.

22. Confusion at exits.

23. Ticketing moving violations or warnings.

24. Getting lost in familiar places.

25. Car accident.

26. Failure to stop at stop sign or red light.

27. Confusing the gas and brake pedals.

28. Stopping in traffic for no apparent reason.

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