The Driving Debate

by Jessica A. Pavelko, CSA (originally published in Lancaster County Magazine)

The conversation we all dread usually goes something like this: “Dad, I think it’s time that you consider giving up your driver’s license. We can’t take the risk of you getting into a car accident and hurting yourself, let alone someone else.” He, of course, is indignant: “what do you mean? I can still drive. If I gave up driving, who would take me to the grocery store and doctor appointments? And, what happens when I just want to go over to a friend’s house. Who is going to take me then?”

It certainly is not an easy battle to face or carry out. However, statistics speak for themselves – according to Elder Web, seniors have a four-times higher accident rate and a nine-times higher fatal accident rate than any other age group, including teens. And, as we all know, traffic seems to be getting worse on Lancaster thoroughfares, which makes the concept of defensive driving all the more important. Understanding these facts helps one realize the importance of acting sooner rather than later to prevent a catastrophe.

More often than not, a senior individual is not receptive to the idea of giving up his/her driver’s license. Here’s where family dynamics are important – you and your siblings need to be on the same page and not send mixed messages to your mother of father. You could sit down with your parent as a group (maybe over a family dinner) or elect a sibling to act as an envoy in order to state your opinion and air your concerns. And, the conversation doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Employ some positive aspects – point out that giving up driving would be cost effective, as car maintenance expenses, insurance premiums and spending money on gas would be a thing of the past.

You could also gain an ally in your parent’s physician. Start by encouraging your loved one to visit his or her family doctor to have their eyesight and reflexes checked. (You might call or visit the doctor beforehand to express your concerns and solicit his or her help.) A doctor or other third party might best explain to the individual that driving safely requires the complex coordination of a variety of skills including response time, vision, hearing, muscle strength, flexibility and more. Unfortunately, as we age, all those variables deteriorate.

Experts point out that 90 percent of the information we need for safe driving is delivered through our eyes. Eyesight has other implications, as it involves depth perception and peripheral vision. The elderly also begin to experience issues dealing with the inability to see well in dim light and readily acknowledge that they no longer wish to drive after dark

Elderly individuals also may experience hearing loss. High-pitched sounds become less audible before low-pitched one do. Things we need to hear when we are driving – sirens, horns, train whistles, etc. – all qualify as high-pitched sounds.

It is also important that medications be taken into consideration. Many people experience drowsiness and other side effects from their medications, which could make driving perilous. Also, many senior suffer from arthritis. Consider the immediate reaction required when a car pulls out in front of you unexpectedly. Gripping the steering wheel or slamming on the brakes could prove to be impossible.

While you might be tempted to hide your loved one’s keys, such tactics are not recommended. Maintaining trust with your loved one is crucial during this difficult period of life. If all else has failed, you might employ the help of a geriatric consultant or your parent’s minister or attorney, another family relative (one of their siblings, perhaps) or a trusted friend to convince them that driving might not be in their best interest.

If you have doubts, you might suggest that your parent enrolls in a mature operators class that AAA offers and obtain an opinion from the course instructor. However, if you truly feel as though he or she should not be driving any longer and your opinions are not being heeded, confidentially ask his or her physician for a letter to take to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The DMV will than arrange for your loved one to have a “routine” eye exam. If he or she should fail the exam and the DMV does take their license away, you will not be regarded as the one who took their freedoms away.

Be forewarned that it is common for seniors to become agitated and anxious after they have given up their licenses. They may experience feelings of being trapped and actually exhibit symptoms of loss. After all, they have surrendered one of their freedoms.

Hopefully, you can help then realize that there are many options available for alternative transportation. You and your siblings might ease their distress by devising a schedule for taking them to the store, doctor’s appointments and social activities. Oftentimes, the individual’s church can arrange for a volunteer to take on those chores. For those individuals who are not associated with a church, Love INC in Pennsylvania (717-735-7540) provides such services.

There are also transportation options available through Red Rose Access in Lancaster, PA which is a door-to-door transportation service. Individuals who are 65 or older and need transportation but live more than a quarter mile from a bus stop can utilize Red Rose Access services by calling 717-291-1243 to arrange for pick-up. (Transportation services can be found by contacting your local Area Agency on Aging office.)

You might also obtain the services of an in-home care agency or live-in care companion to assist them with tasks around the house, as well as provide transportation. A retirement community is yet another option, as they typically provide transportation to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, the mall and even social activities such as outings to the Fulton Opera House and other area theaters.

For more information on “Talking with Older Drivers,” please visit the Department of Motor Vehicle’s website at Other states offer similar services, consult your state’s website. 

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