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How To Take Away The Keys From An Elderly Driver Who Shouldn’t Be Driving

By Aaron Crowe

One of the most difficult situations to discuss with an elderly relative is whether they should be driving anymore.

Some elderly drivers might take it as a personal affront that their freedom to drive when they want is being taken away. Family concerns not only include the health of the elderly driver, but the potential harm to others and property, says Dr. Marion Somers, an elder care expert and author of the book “Elder Care Made Easier.”

In taking the car keys from her elderly father, Somers also had to deal with the important issue of how he would get to appointments. They covered that by selling his car and putting the money toward a transportation tab with a local taxi service; riding together by bus to many appointments so he could get used to using public transportation; having the local senior center and other groups pick him up at home; move a regular poker game with friends to his house; buying a three-wheeled adult bike with a basket; setting up deliveries from a local grocery store; and having prescriptions delivered.

Knowing when an elderly driver shouldn’t be driving any longer isn’t easy, but it’s an important discussion to have.

Elderly driving statistics show that it’s a discussion worth having. NHTSA data on elderly drivers show that they accounted for 13% of all traffic fatalities and 18% of all pedestrian fatalities. A 1997 NHTSA study found that on the basis of estimated annual travel, the fatality rate for drivers 85 and older is nine times as high as the rate for drivers ages 25-69.

As the youngest of six children, Liz Dunlap Hersey, a marketing director, found the task of taking the keys from an elderly driver fell to her when her mother was in her 80s and unable to drive safely. Instead of going it alone in telling her mom she shouldn’t be driving anymore, Hersey went to an auto mechanic — who was also an old friend — to back her up.

“When we took her car in for maintenance, he reminded her that due to the age of the car, she would need to keep investing in it to keep it in safe working order,” Hersey wrote in an email. “I used that as the launching point into a discussion on driving safety in general and how it might be time she give up rather than keep dumping money into a losing proposition.”

Her mother agreed to stop driving, and an age issue was rationalized as an economic one.

Beyond the signs of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, there are other signs that relatives should look for in elderly drivers, says Letha Sgritta McDowell, an elder law attorney in Virginia who advises families on when and how to take the keys away.

They include scrapes and bumps on their car, getting lost, swerving often, driving slow on a highway, and physical ailments such as slow reflexes and being unable to turn their head enough to check a blind spot, says McDowell, who adds that signs of dementia may take years to spot.

Since the elderly have more physical problems than other drivers, it’s natural for them to have difficulty driving. If you’re walking with a walker, do you have the strength to lift your foot quickly to respond to a merging car that hasn’t signaled?

Mandy Chizek, president of Charism Elder Living Services, says the elderly should be aware of how their bodies and response times change with age. Cardiac disease can slow thinking time due to blood flow changes to the brain, arthritis can make movement painful, neurologic disease such as strokes can cause not knowing how hard the brake or gas pedal is being pushed, and prolonged reaction time can lead to poor or urgent decision making and the ability to move feet from gas to brake pedal quickly.

Aging eyes can also affect elderly drivers, Chizek says. They include glaucoma and cataracts that can lead to halos around lights and make driving at night difficult, the inability of the eye to respond to changes in light and dark exposure or prolonged night blindness due to oncoming headlights after passing another car at night, and strokes and macular degeneration leading to distorted vision in one eye.

While the incident last summer of a 101-year-old driving into a crowded market is rare, it points out that some elderly drivers should not be driving if they can’t do it safely.

If they’re driving and they shouldn’t be, there’s the question of if they’re negligent,” McDowell says.

Elderly drivers are typically resistant to having their driver’s license taken away, so some states make it easier for a relative to do. Virginia, for example, allows anonymous reporting to the DMV of dangerous drivers, and the state will send the elderly driver a letter telling them to come in for a driving test. If they don’t come in they could lose their license.

In Tennessee, Becky Blanton had to make the hard choice of taking her mother to court to have her license taken away after her mom got in three accidents in a week because she had dementia.

Blanton said the state police told her they couldn’t stop her from driving unless she chose to go to the DMV and get tested. Blanton had to get the courts involved to prove incompetence, and she ended up having to put her mom in a nursing home that treats Alzheimer’s.

It was a tough choice but one that may have saved someone’s life — possibly her mother’s.

Aaron Crowe is a personal finance writer who writes about auto insurance for