Retiring the Keys

Joseph D Younger, AAA Westways Magazine

How can you tell whether an older driver presents a hazard on the road?

Experts agree: You can’t answer the question by age alone. “Biological age and chronological age are two completely different things,” says Linda Hill, director of preventive medicine residency at the University of California at San Diego.

“Despite what people may think, older drivers are among the safest drivers on the road,” says Anita Lorz Villagrana, the Auto Club’s community affairs and traffic safety manager. “As a matter of fact, they often voluntarily avoid high-risk driving situations, such as driving at night or in bad weather.”

Nevertheless, aging affects driving ability in three distinct areas: perceptual (especially deteriorating vision), physical (loss of strength and flexibility), and cognitive (diminished or slowed mental processing). Experts say any of the following signs should raise concerns about an individual driver’s safety:

  • Unexplained dents and scrapes on the vehicle, mailbox, or garage door
  • Showing poor judgment at intersections or having difficulty judging gaps when making left turns or at entrance and exit ramps
  • Getting lost or confused on familiar roads and neighborhoods
  • Feeling uncomfortable or anxious while driving
  • Delayed responses to unexpected driving situations (e.g., a sudden stop in traffic or a ball or object in the street)
  • Difficulty staying in his or her travel lane or traveling too far to the right or too close to parked cars
  • Increased “close calls” or “near misses”
  • Difficulty paying attention to signals, road signs, and pavement markings.

For additional warning signs, visit the AAA Senior Driving website.


Where to Turn
A selection of resources for and about senior drivers and their families.

American Occupational Therapy Association. Besides offering an online directory of certified driving rehabilitation therapists, AOTA’s website features research, safety tips, conversation starters, and links to other resources, such as community-based transportation programs.

Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists. Driver-ed.org has an online directory of members who offer assessments, searchable by state.

Eldercare Locator (1-800-677-1116), a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, offers free, downloadable publications—such as A Talk With an Elder Driver—plus a localized directory of transportation resources.

The AAA Senior Driving website. This content-rich website serves as AAA’s clearinghouse for information and resources on senior driving. It includes evaluation tools, such as AAA Roadwise Review (computer-based self-screening), and an online brain fitness program called DriveSharp (available at no charge to qualifying Auto Club members who have vehicle insurance through AAA).


5 Key Talking Points
Since my personal experience with my father-in-law, I’ve learned that my family’s struggle with age-related driving issues is all too common. After talking with experts, I know we could have managed the situation a lot better. Your family’s story might unfold more smoothly if you follow a few basic principles.

1. Have an ongoing conversation, not The Talk. Unfortunately, our family didn’t think about transportation for our aging parents until a crisis loomed. “At some point, we’ll all have health issues that interfere with driving,” says Linda Hill, director of preventive medicine residency at the University of California at San Diego. “Families should begin talking before it’s a problem. Then egos and emotions don’t get in the way.” Transportation should be as much a part of retirement planning as health care, housing, and finances. The Auto Club’s Anita Lorz Villagrana adds, “You should avoid an intervention and instead talk openly and respectfully. After all, no one wants to be called a dangerous driver.”

2. Sharpen skills and seek solutions. “Everyone needs to understand from the beginning that the goal is to keep seniors driving safely for as long as possible,” says Elin Schold Davis, project coordinator of the American Occupational Therapy Association’s (AOTA) Older Driver Initiative. CarFit, a program developed jointly by AAA, AOTA, and AARP, serves as a great icebreaker.

As the name implies, this free service helps drivers assess the fit of their vehicles (e.g., seat or foot positioning); experts can spot problems and suggest solutions. AAA also offers online assessments aimed specifically at helping seniors overcome age-related problems.

For a more in-depth evaluation, consider a behind-the-wheel audit by a trained driving specialist. Be aware, though, that these assessments can cost several hundred dollars, and most insurance plans don’t cover them. “Seniors should think of specialists as allies,” says Schold Davis. They might suggest simple, low-cost adaptive equipment such as steering wheel knobs for when fingers and wrists lose flexibility.

Assessments can prove empowering in other ways as well, especially for female drivers. On average, males outlive their driving tenure by about seven years; females, by 10 years—and not just because women live longer. “Women tend to be more cautious, and many quit too soon,” says Richard Kohr, a senior driver ombudsman for the California DMV. An assessment can actually shore up their confidence.

3. Recruit support. Although the credibility that seniors give their adult children varies by age, sex, and other circumstances, studies show that many just don’t want to hear about their driving from their kids. Friends and other relatives, especially peers in age, often carry more clout. Here, doctors can play an especially important role. “Physicians have become much more aware of how health conditions affect driving,” says Hill.

4. Plan for driving retirement. Seniors need to know that giving up the keys won’t leave them stranded. “In planning the transition, it’s important to build a repertoire of options,” says Schold Davis. That means not only getting family members to pitch in as drivers, but also helping senior drivers explore public transportation options, ride-sharing resources, and other community services.

5. Take your time selling the car. Even after he retired from driving, my father-in-law always felt more comfortable riding in his big, old Ciera—not only because it was roomy, but because it was his. He’d gas it up. He’d worry about when to rotate the tires and change the oil. And he took comfort just knowing it was there, even if he never drove it. Most experts agree that, except for ex-drivers with Alzheimer’s or dementia, keeping the car often helps seniors make the transition.

Looking back, I’m glad our family got at least that part right.


Joseph D. Younger is a longtime Westways contributor who has written about automotive topics for more than two decades.