Most of today’s seniors have had a life-long relationship with automobiles. As teenagers, our “wheels” were a status symbol and the key to a freedom we had never had as children. Suddenly, we could go somewhere without Mom or Dad! For many of us, getting a driver’s license was more memorable than any birthday or graduation celebration.
Today, that relationship with cars and driving endures. The ability to drive still means individual freedom and independence. Driving is a very practical skill, giving seniors the ability to keep medical appointments, shop on their own, visit, help friends, volunteer or just to have fun. Most people are reluctant to give this up, even if their driving skills are declining.
This situation has been called a “silver tsunami,” as more and more seniors reach an age where driving ability is impaired. To be clear, many seniors remain among the safest and least accident-prone of all drivers. Still, we cannot ignore the fact that increased age often means that physical abilities like vision, hearing and reaction time decline. All of these are required elements to remain a safe driver. There is no fixed age at which driving becomes unsafe, but responsible seniors should be aware of their own limitations and adjust their driving habits to fit these circumstances.
Many seniors restrict their own driving voluntarily as they begin to feel less confident behind the wheel. Gradually, they begin to avoid night driving, dense traffic areas and high-speed roads. Unfortunately, others wait until there is a serious accident, a series of fender-benders or a major health event to take action. A few steadfastly refuse to face the facts, continuing to drive well past the time they should have quit.
Because there is no fixed age at which drivers become unsafe, safety experts have campaigned to make in-person renewal of licenses mandatory, starting as early as age 65. Many states do this, but others (Florida for example) allow seniors to continue by-mail license renewal. However, starting at age 80, Florida seniors must pass a vision test in order to continue driving and be retested every six years. The state may impose conditions for renewal, such as a requirement for glasses or exclusion of night driving.
Hopefully, most seniors will be the best judge of their own ability. This includes more than vision, hearing and reaction time. Think about your ability to turn your head to see oncoming traffic, the medications you take and the warnings on them, your grip strength, and joint flexibility. All of these things can make you a safe or unsafe driver.
Overall, we must strike a balance between the desire to maintain mobility and independence verses the safety of ourselves and others. This responsibility falls on family, caretakers, physicians and mostly on seniors themselves. Like most senior-life decisions, the best time to start thinking about this is now! Here are some things you should consider in making the “hang-it-up” decision.
The cost of auto ownership and driving
Most people underestimate the cost of driving and car ownership, even if their vehicle is paid for. Car payments are only part of the picture; insurance costs, gas, tires, maintenance, tolls and parking fees can still add up to thousands of dollars each year. Depending on your personal circumstances, getting rid of your automobile and taking up a ride service like Uber or Lyft may make economic sense. If you are not ready for this, at least give one of these services a test. Use one of them for some routine purpose just to see how it works.
Your support system
Having confidence in a system of dependable support can lessen the pain of giving up driving. Family members, caregivers and friends may be able to help out, especially with routine things like shopping or church attendance. Many organizations like local churches have had programs designed to meet mobility needs. Concern about COVID has limited these services, but as the pandemic recedes, they should become more active. If you are able to continue driving, consider volunteering for one of these services.
Auto safety classes and training
The AARP, AAA and other organizations offer driver safety courses that can improve your driving ability. These classes have also been limited by the COVID pandemic, but they will surely resume as it passes. Taking one of these classes may lower your insurance costs. The AAA offers a “Mature Operator” course for drivers aged 55 and over. They can offer both pointers and driver skills evaluations in many areas.
Look into special aides
Improved mirror systems, steering wheel knobs or devices that assist with brake access can help in some cases. Some new cars come with advanced features like lane-change warning systems and rear-view cameras. These were not designed with seniors especially in mind, but they can help give some people the confidence to keep driving.
Consider your recent history
You may have been a safe driver for 40 or 50 years, but recently you have had a string of dents, minor accidents or traffic violations. Your insurance company is going to notice this, even if you put it out of mind. This may be a sign that the time is coming to restrict or give up driving. If a spouse or other loved one is experiencing this, it may be time to actively intervene for their own good. In extreme cases, the Florida Division of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles will accept information from any person or agency who knows of a condition that affects an individual’s ability to drive safely. The DHSMV can step in to suspend driving privileges, but of course this is a last resort.
Think about your future situation
If you foresee a move to an assisted living facility or senior oriented community, the need for a personal vehicle may disappear. In any case, seniors sometimes find that their desire and need for driving diminishes with the years.
Many aspects of senior life are satisfying and pleasurable, but it is also a time to make some difficult decisions. As with estate planning, living wills, choosing a place to live or making funeral arrangements, deciding to give up or continue driving needs careful thought and often professional advice. Now is the time to think about this.