Is It Time for the Talk About Safe Driving?

It seems that every week we hear a news report about an automobile accident involving a senior driver. Though National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures show that, in fact, the safest drivers of all are those aged 64 – 69, increased age almost inevitably brings physical and mental challenges to operating a motor vehicle. Vision problems, hearing loss, decreased reaction time, memory impairment, arthritis and reduced manual dexterity all can make driving unsafe past a certain point.

Yet many seniors are adamant that they don't want to hang up the car keys. They equate driving with independence and self-esteem. Though some seniors will voluntarily relinquish the car or reduce their driving in favor of alternate transportation, in many families it is the adult children who must step in and have the difficult talk when it becomes apparent that an older relative isn’t safe behind the wheel.

Seniors are correct in thinking that driving supports an active, connected lifestyle. Said University of Missouri researcher Angela Curl, "Often when individuals stop driving, their health and happiness decline. For seniors, engaging more in their communities is linked to maintained health, lower rates of depression and financial benefits, and this is why adults need to better prepare before they quit driving."

Curl, who is an assistant professor of social work, says that planning for driving cessation should begin well before the senior needs to give up the keys. She suggests that seniors include their family members in the conversation—but she found that many seniors don't want to open the topic for discussion. She says that family members should bring up the subject instead of waiting to be asked.

But for many families, this suggestion isn't as easy as it seems! In a recent Caring Right at Home poll, respondents listed driving as second only to "the need for outside help" as being a difficult topic to discuss with elder loved ones. Does this mean these family members aren't worried? To the contrary. A recent study by Liberty Mutual Insurance found that plenty of boomer-age adult children are worried about their elder parents' driving. They are concerned that their parents drive too slow, or have poor hearing or vision, or tend to be distracted on the road.

Yet only half of the adult children in the study felt comfortable raising the subject with their parents. Indeed, almost a third of these adult children said that they avoid the topic entirely. Most fear a negative reaction from their parents: 46 percent think their parents will be angry or hurt; 31 percent think their loved one will reject the idea that they could stay mobile with the help of other modes of transportation. And almost a quarter of the boomers surveyed thought that bringing up the subject would make their parents more determined than ever to keep driving!
Said Liberty Mutual driving safety expert David Melton, "Nine in 10 boomer children of senior drivers think it is important to have driving conversations with their aging parent, but few are taking action—thus, not addressing potential safety risks on the roads."

The Liberty Mutual experts encourage boomer children to talk openly with their parents about driving. They offer tips for having a successful conversation on the topic, including:

  • Take a ride with your parents and observe their driving. Watch their awareness of their driving environment. Do they have slow reaction times? Are there dents, close calls, tickets or warnings?
  • Discuss the topic early and have realistic expectations, as it is likely that the matter will not be resolved with the first discussion.
  • Look into alternate transportation solutions and be prepared to discuss options.

Angela Curl offers one more important insight: Though many family members are happy to help provide transportation for their loved one, older adults often are hesitant to ask for this support because they don't want to "become a burden." Curl suggests that as part of the driving conversation, families express their willingness to help in this way rather than waiting for their loved one to request it.

Learn More

Visit the Liberty Mutual Insurance Senior Driving site, where you will find more tips for talking with your loved one.

The Hartford Financial Services Group offers a free, online guidebook, "We Need to Talk … Family Conversations with Older Drivers."

What if your loved one has Alzheimer's or other dementia, yet insists on continuing to drive? Read "Driving and Dementia: A Difficult Conversation" in the June 2012 issue of Caring Right at Home to find some advice from experts. And learn how home care can be an important supplemental transportation resource in "Out and About: The Home Care Perspective," which appeared in the October 2011 issue.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.