Q: My parents are getting older, and I’m wondering, how do I know when it’s time for them to stop driving?
A: If you’re a fan of the Guinness Book of World Records, you might have heard of Johanna Quaas, the world’s oldest gymnast. She turned 95 this year and still has a parallel bar routine that would make some of the show-offs on muscle beach reevaluate their life goals.
I mention Johanna to make the point that age itself isn’t the limiting factor in driving, or any other life activity. It’s all the things that go along with age. That might sound like two ways of saying the same thing, but I don’t think so.
It’s true that drivers over 70 are over-represented in fatal crashes, second only to teenagers on a per-mile basis. While the data for both young and old drivers are somewhat similar, the reasons behind them are not. With teen drivers, the underlying factors often include poor judgment and inexperience; for older drivers, physical vulnerability is a big issue. Put simply, young people can handle more trauma and recover.
That’s not to say that an older driver’s skills are as good as they ever were. It’s more that older drivers recognize their weak spots and take protective measures to compensate for them. Young drivers, not so much. We’ll get to the weak spots in a minute.
I’d suggest that the first step to answering your question begins with a conversation. More than 80 percent of older drivers never have a conversation with their family or their doctor about their safe driving ability. By doing so, you can encourage your parents to develop strategies that, if they keep driving, reduce their risk. You might even find that they’re already doing that. As examples, let’s look at several things that are important to driving and typically get worse with age:
Vision (especially night vision): You may be able to pass a vision exam with corrective lenses, but there’s not much you can do to improve night vision. As we get older our pupils shrink a little, which lets in less light. They also respond slower, so oncoming headlights at night are more blinding. Giving up night driving can be a way to maintain independence and still drive safely.
Reaction time: This is one of those areas where wisdom and experience make up for youth. Young people have fast reaction times, but older drivers are generally smart enough to leave more distance between them and other drivers, choose routes with slower speed limits and look further ahead for hazards.
Strength and Mobility: This becomes an issue when a driver can’t do things like turning their head to check for traffic or gripping the steering wheel. Exercise or physical therapy may be able to extend an otherwise safe driver’s time on the road.
Mental acuity: While you may be able to compensate for the weak spots I just mentioned, this one is likely a deal-breaker for driving. If your parent gets easily confused or lost while driving, it’s time to give up the keys.
Maybe you’re not quite ready to have the conversation but you still want to know if your parents should be driving. You could start by getting in the passenger seat and going for a ride. Not willing to ride with them? That’s a sign. Walk around their car and look for damage. If your parents have a five year old car with five separate dents, that’s another sign.
We all get older, but we don’t experience it all the same way, so how you work through it with your parents depend on your situation. Given that most people don’t have this conversation with their parents at all, even asking the question means you’re off to a good start.
Doug Dahl is a staff member of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.