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Part I: Time to Turn Over the Car Keys?

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

Most people don’t think about the potential hazards of elderly drivers until they hear about a tragic accident where age seems to play a major role in the mishap. One example occurred in 2003 when an 86 year-old man drove his Buick Le Sabre into a crowded farmer’s market in Santa Monica, California killing 10 people and injuring more than 70 others. His attorneys explained that he had confused his car’s accelerator for the brake.

Health and safety experts say that many crashes involving elderly drivers, like the one above, occur because the older adult refuses to give up his or her car keys. In our highly mobile and self-sufficient culture, the car represents independence. Many older adults equate giving up driving privileges with a permanent loss of that independence. And for some it is a sacrifice they are not willing to make. Even if it means risking danger to themselves and others.

But, in the news reports of these unfortunate accidents what we don’t usually hear are the anguished family members who saw signs that their father or mother was a potential danger and did not intervene. Tens of thousands of adult children are at that same juncture now. They are asking whether they should have the “talk” with their parent about turning over the car keys for good.

Warning signs

Knowing when and how to coax your parent to give up driving is one of the most difficult issues that family caregivers face. Many adult children do not feel adequately equipped to determine whether their parent is a safe driver. In these cases, it is best to seek out an objective party like a physician, or a driver rehabilitation specialist who can more formally assess a parent’s abilities.”

But it is also important to honestly assess your own observations and instincts. Would you feel safe riding with your parent? Or, would you allow your child to ride across town with your parent driving? If not, why not? What specific behaviors cause you to question your parent’s ability to drive safely?

To help you sort out some of these behaviors, here are four of the most common warning signs that your parent’s driving ability may be declining:

  • Getting lost. Everyone gets turned around and loses their direction from time to time, but if this happens in familiar surroundings, it may signal mental confusion.
  • Ignoring traffic signals. Failure to notice or obey stop signs, traffic lights or other highway markers may mean your parent didn’t notice them or did not correctly interpret the meaning of the sign or signal. Visual impairment or mental processing problems may be the cause.
  • Lack of judgment. Driving requires the ability to make quick decisions whether judging the speed of oncoming traffic, stopping for a yellow light or knowing when to pass a slower vehicle. Slow or poor decision-making greatly increases the risk of an accident.
  • Driving too fast or too slowly. Erratic driving at inappropriate speeds can indicate a lack of concentration, poor physical coordination or visual impairment. It may also indicate poor judgment.

Most common errors made by older drivers

When older adults make mistakes in driving, they tend to err in the following ways:

  • Inadequate scanning of roadways for other vehicles or pedestrians
  • Difficulty in staying in the same lane, on straight roads or when turning
  • Difficulty in selecting the correct lane from which to turn
  • Inappropriate or delayed stopping
  • Changing lanes without using turn signal
  • Failure to respond appropriately to road signs or signals

These driving errors are often the result of physical impairments, such as loss of clear vision or slow response time, or mental impairments, such as confusion, or slow processing of information. These are conditions that may become more pronounced as a person ages.

The good news is that there are sensitive and effective ways to help your aging parent turn over the keys without straining your relationship or disrespecting them. In part 2 on this topic we’ll discuss how to do that.

Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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