It was a weekday lunch hour on a late summer day. I was enjoying a bowl of soup inside a cafe while working on my laptop. Without warning, there was a massive crashing sound that I will not forget as the large cafe window shattered. A split second later, I was swept up onto the hood of a car and pinned to the cafe counter.
The accident sent 10 cafe patrons, including a family, a pregnant woman, an infant and myself, to the emergency room. As I later learned, the car’s driver had mistaken the gas pedal for the brake while trying to park his car outside the cafe. He was 92 years old. Amazingly there were no fatalities. Even the infant who had been dislodged from the arm of a parent and found under the car survived.
The 2011 crash was a lead story on the local news. Within two weeks, two other local elderly drivers died in separate single-car accidents elsewhere. Like so many other accidents committed by drivers no longer safe to drive, this crash was entirely preventable. As a prevention-oriented psychologist, this really got to me.
As I was recovering at home, as part of my healing, I vowed to help prevent what happened to me from happening to others.
Addressing unsafe driving by older adults
Inevitably there comes a time when someone’s ability to drive safely comes into question. But what can be done? Physicians sometimes recommend that their patients stop driving, but their advice often goes unheeded. Advocacy groups offer “safe driving” classes for older adults, but their reach is limited. And self-driving cars may eventually provide alternative transportation options, but for many they still feel like science fiction.
What if there were more laws on the books addressing safe driving in older adults? Statistically, more reckless crashes happen to very young drivers and to older drivers. But while there are laws to establish baseline standards for new drivers – including a minimum driving age — few standards exist for retesting an permitting older adults. The District of Columbia requires a physician’s approval for drivers 70 and older to renew their licenses, and Illinois requires applicants older than 75 to take a road test at every renewal. But most states have far more lax renewal requirements.
Primary barriers to passing more stringent laws include the perception of ageism and the potential loss of independence for seniors. There are also practical challenges for policy makers, including ensuring there are adequate transportation alternatives for those deemed unsafe to be driving.
The responsibility falls first on families. It can be a sensitive and challenging topic to broach, but it’s an important conversation to start.
As someone who values functional independence and has watched this play out with older relatives, I understand the complexities.
But retesting seniors makes sense. Our country’s minimum age requirements to legally drive are based on physiology, reactions, judgment and maturity. We do not have similar requirements on the upper end, even though our physiology, reaction time, and judgment often undergo significant changes as we mature.
Even with stronger laws, the responsibility falls first on families to be mindful of the safety of their elderly loved ones and others. For anyone caring for an older relative, there likely will be a time when safe driving becomes a concern. It can be a sensitive and challenging topic to broach, but it’s an important conversation to start.
Starting the conversation
Here are some pointers for talking to your loved one about safe driving:
* Frame your message. Be delicate but firm. State your concerns and suggestions gently but authoritatively.
* Listen to their concerns. Try to hear their biggest resistances to change and let them know that you hear them.
* Be patient. This may require having the same conversation multiple times.
* Be a problem-solver. Consider how else your loved one can maintain independence and how you can support their practical needs.
Having this conversation with your loved one involves taking a risk and potentially changing their lives in ways they fear. But it could mean the difference between life and death.