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“Taking the keys from Mom?” How to help older drivers stay safe

Last September, a 100-year-old driver in Los Angeles backed his Cadillac into a group of elementary school children, injuring 11 people. The incident renewed the debate over when elderly people should stop driving. Often, attorneys will be contacted by caregivers facing this all important conversation with their loved ones.

According to AAA Foundation for Public Safety, today over 15 percent of all drivers on the road are over the age of 65 and by 2025 over one-quarter of all drivers will be over the age of 65. Although there is no hard and fast rule that determines when an older person should limit his or her driving, or give up driving altogether, it is true that one’s driving skills may tend to decline with age.

A decline in driving condition is especially true of mature drivers on certain medications or who suffer from certain conditions associated with aging such as diabetes, vision problems, strokes, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Although 30 states, including Virginia and the District of Columbia, have called for measurements to identify older drivers, most agree that ability and safety, not age, should determine if someone should retain driving privileges.

We must remember that driving often is central to functioning as an independent adult in our society, so many times a senior who is having difficulty with driving will not admit the problem for fear of a loss of independence. However, driving with any kind of impairment poses a great threat – to the impaired driver, to their passengers, and to others on the road. Therefore, it is critically important for the friends and family members of elderly drivers to be aware of changes in their loved one’s health, mental abilities, and level of driving skill.

According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, the following are indicators of unsafe mature drivers:

  • They run through stop signs or red lights before they realize they should have stopped;
  • They stop for green lights, or when there is no indication that they need to stop;
  • They come close to hitting other vehicles, pedestrians, or objects with their vehicle;
  • They merge into another lane, or change lanes without looking;
  • They drive the wrong way against traffic;
  • They get lost in familiar areas;
  • They stop in the middle of intersections; or
  • They confuse the gas and the brake pedals.

If your client or loved one exhibits one or more of these signs, it is time to have a talk about limiting – or even eliminating – his or her driving. What if you or the caregiver has not had the opportunity to actually observe the driver behind the wheel? Ask, if he or she is having difficulty with simple tasks like following recipes or is losing track of their daily routine. If so, you may want to talk to the person about limiting their driving or using alternative transportation other than driving. The mental abilities needed to complete these tasks are the same abilities necessary for safe driving.

Once you notice a problem, how do you have a conversation about “taking the keys”? There are many community resources to help caregivers have these all important conversations with their loved ones. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has one of the largest programs in the country focused on helping mature drivers stay safe. The organization’s Driver Safety Program works with caregivers on having safe driving discussions and hosts classes for mature drivers. Local experts at AARP recommend that caregivers re-focus the discussion from “Taking the keys from Mom” to “Mom’s deciding to hang up the keys” because of health concerns. The slight difference in language allows for the discussion to focus on the senior making the decision instead of someone else removing the senior’s right or privilege.

If you are concerned about the ability of a loved one or client to stop driving but cannot convince them to give up the keys, you can ask the caregiver to speak to the individual’s physician. Also, you can request that the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) conduct a review of the driver’s ability to operate a motor vehicle. The Department of Motor Vehicles Medical Review Services is responsible for the review of individuals with a condition that would impair their ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. The guidelines for medical review requirements are based on the Code of Virginia (See § 46.2-204; § 46.2-322, §46.2-314, §46.2-315).

DMV immediately reviews any requests they receive about impaired or hazardous drivers. As a part of the review process the driver may be required to submit a written statement of their medical/vision abilities after examination by their physician. Also, the driver may be required to take the two-part driver license knowledge exam; and/or pass the road skills (driving) exam. Based on DMV’s evaluation of the driver, they may choose to restrict or suspend their driving privileges or require them to submit to periodic medical and/or vision reports. The driver will receive written notice from DMV within 30 days of the review and will be given 15 days to comply.

Having this all important discussion can be a daunting task for both the senior driver and the caregiver. But the conversation is a necessary one – simply removing a vehicle from an otherwise competent senior may result in a worried caregiver facing criminal charges for theft. Some concerned caregivers will choose to mechanically disable the vehicle of an impaired driver, which may provide a temporary solution but does not address the issue directly. The bottom line is that if there are valid reasons to have an impaired driver discontinue driving, the first step is to attempt to convince them to do so voluntarily. If that is unsuccessful, the caregiver must consider the financial and safety risks created by an impaired driver, and take the steps necessary to keep him or her from driving.

- By Melanie Lee

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