Driving Miss Crazy: Taking the Keys from an Aging Parent

I've been talking to my mother (e-mailing, actually: she's a proud denizen of the digital domain). It's about her driving. Mom has been sidelined for a few months with a broken arm, and is chafing at the bit to get back behind the wheel of her little red Honda. She is waiting for the green light from her occupational therapist, anxious to reassert her independence.

While she appreciates Meal on Wheels and the attention from the Visiting Nurses Association, various therapists and home health-aid workers, she's got cabin fever. Mom just turned 94, and is determined to live alone in her home as long as humanly possible. And drive.

I understand her desires, and respect her wishes. However, I have qualms and serious concerns about her resuming her to-and-fros, for her sake and for that of the motoring public with whom she shares the road.

She's been driving nearly 80 years (!), with few accidents or tickets. Her record is virtually spotless; she's been both competent and conscientious. Nevertheless, as time goes by I am increasingly reluctant to ride shotgun with her. My wife points out that Mom still takes corners at speed, and drives, if not aggressively, then "competitively." Her diminishing vision, hearing and motor skills (or motoring skills, as the case may be) will eventually catch up to her. Accidents happen, and minor inconvenience or serious mayhem is often separated by small differences in reaction time and judgment.

I have begun the conversation with Mom, letting her know my concerns while making sure she understands it is about safety first, not an attack on her rugged individualism or a dismissal of her desires. I raised these points:

  • How do you feel at the wheel as you advance in age?
  • Have you noticed any change in your skills or attention span?
  • Are you confident that your vision and hearing are adequate for safe driving?
  • Are you maintaining the car as diligently as ever?
  • Have you experienced any incidents that gave you pause, driving-wise, recently?
  • How confident are you that you will recognize your driving days are done before an unfortunate event makes it all too clear?
  • And finally, could you deal with the consequences of injuring another party should you cause an accident?

So far, Mom has been open and upfront, she hasn't been defensive or felt threatened. Her own father had set an example. At the age of 89 he had a minor fender-bender with a police car, and promptly turned in his license. I am aware that younger seniors, with various contributory medical issues, might be less congenial or sanguine about relinquishing the wheel. I am lucky in that sense. But beyond our discussion, I intend to:

  • Check her driving personally, like a driver's-ed instructor. Road test.
  • Talk to her doctors, particularly about the side effects of her medication.
  • Keep an eye on her car: tire pressure, fluids, brakes, etc. Speak with her mechanic when necessary.
  • Ask her friends and neighbors if they've noticed any adverse warning signs.

Best-case scenario: Mom will know when it is time, and give up her license and keys gracefully. The money she saves on insurance and gas can then be squandered lovingly on the grandchildren.

Not-so-best case scenario: Her extended family will recognize clear and present danger in time to intervene; we have had this conversation amongst ourselves.

Worst-case scenario: I am not going there; I am an optimist. A 94-year-old mother intent on staying active will do that to you.

There are some excellent resources on the web, for general information about senior driving, specific steps to identify and measure safety parameters, and guidance in negotiating the new territory.

  • AAA's Senior Driving site, "Helping Seniors Drive Safer & Longer," has great info. The "resources for family and friends" sub-section is very good, and the site provides information on everything from various state's licensing laws as they affect seniors to how to initiate these discussions with senior loved ones. The self-rating tool, "Evaluate Your Driving Ability" can be an eye-opener for senior drivers. Or any driver, actually.
    SEE: seniordriving.aaa.com
  • I particularly like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's "Older Drivers" site, for an overall survey of the topic using statistical studies and solid analysis. They cover each state's license renewal policies thoroughly. At this time, only 21 states have put "accelerated renewal cycles" in place for seniors, but hopefully this safeguard policy for increased screening of driving capability will become more widespread.
    The Institute has determined that "per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase noticeably starting at age 70-74 and are highest among drivers 85 and older." But I was surprised to learn that these rates are "largely due to increased susceptibility to injury" of aging, brittle bodies, "rather than increased tendency to get into crashes." Teenagers are still by far the most likely to wreak mayhem, and middle-aged drivers cause more accidents than seniors.
    SEE: http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/older-drivers/topicoverview

This kind of information will make it easier to convince my Mom, when the time comes, that she can hold her head up with pride as she hands over the keys. We can watch "Driving Miss Daisy" together, and let someone else worry about negotiating the crazy New Jersey traffic.

Written by M. Llewellyn Chapman