Aging is difficult. Don't let anyone tell you differently. While there are many beautiful benefits to maturity such as grandchildren who go back to their parents once the sugar high sets in, cool discounts that young whipper-snappers don't have access to, and an excuse to say exactly what is on your mind, aging is not always a bed of roses. Hopefully we've gained wisdom through the accumulation of days, however, time does cause our bodies to begin deteriorate: our vision can be diminished, our joints are more susceptible to fatigue, and we get confused with the constant changes around us ("Why do they keep changing the operating system on my smart phone just when I had the last one figured out?"). It is important that we walk wisely into this time of life.

We all drive cars.

Our ability to go where we want, when we want, is a huge factor in our personal freedom and happiness.  The loss of the ability to drive can be devastating to many people and cause rifts in otherwise peaceful families. While we want to allow ourselves and our loved ones as much independence as possible, we also need to consider their safety and the safety of others on the road.

When it comes to determining the time to stop driving, age shouldn't be the main consideration. We probably all know 83 year olds who have more mental awareness and physical ability than some 63 year olds. So how do we know when it is no longer safe for us or a loved one to drive?

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has created a list of questions to consider when changes might need to take place. We need to be honest with ourselves and loved ones and begin these conversations early so that when the time for driving modification comes, we will all be more prepared.

  • Does he or she get lost on routes that should be familiar?
  • Have you noticed new dents, scratches, or other damage to his or her vehicle?
  • Has he or she received a ticket for a driving violation?
  • Has he or she experienced a near miss or crash recently?
  • Has his or her doctor advised him or her to limit or stop driving due to a health reason?
  • Is he or she overwhelmed by signs, signals, road markings, and everything else he or she needs to focus on when driving?
  • Does he or she take any medication that might affect his or her capacity to drive safely?
  • Does he or she stop inappropriately and/or speed or drive too slowly, preventing the safe flow of traffic?
  • Does he or she suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, glaucoma, cataracts, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, or other illnesses that may affect his or her driving skills?

As we begin these conversations with those who are aging, remember we're all aging. Being aware of our own limitations and finding safe ways to compensate will help keep us and others safer while traveling.

Often health conditions, more than age, affect our ability to drive safely. Some of these conditions, like a broken bone or recent surgery, are temporary and we can continue driving once we have healed. Other conditions like a stroke, severe arthritis, or diabetes might affect our health to the point where driving is not safe. At this point, we need to consider changing our habits. This does not always mean turning in our keys. Sometimes simple modifications can be made so that we can maintain our ability to drive in certain situations. This could be a simple agreement to not drive after dark because of night vision issues, or it can be more dramatic like making enhancements or alterations to the vehicle to diminish the limiting effects of the disability.

If driving is not possible, public transportation can be a viable option to help us get around. Modern technology has provided many options such as ride sharing services that allow seniors to go where they want to go, when they want to go, without having to rely on one or two people to get them there. Carpooling with different friends can also ease the burden not having a vehicle. The lack of an automobile or limiting its use does not necessarily have to limit our mobility.

NHTSA has also produced a series of videos which introduces drivers and their loved ones to some options for drivers with age-related disabilities. As stated above, sometimes drivers with age-related health issues can continue to drive, but they need to limit what they do on the road. Other times drivers should no longer be behind the wheel. It's often difficult to know when that time comes. Safety for oneself and those around us, not personal feelings, should the main indicator of a senior’s ability to continue driving. Again, honesty with ourselves and our loved ones is imperative.

What about the RV?

Driving an RV is more difficult that driving a car, van, or truck. A larger turning radius, bigger blind spots, longer stopping distances are just some of the factors that make the mental and physical driving tasks more daunting. These vehicles have more mass and the consequnces for errors are often more severe, especially for the other, smaller vehicle involved. As we age, it might be wise to consider a smaller, more easily maneuverable RV. It could be our spouse shares with more of the driving responsibilities to allow for adequate rest for one another. If fatigue or pain is an issue, we may need to limit our driving to only a few hours each day. All RVs have stairs of some kind. Those with limited physical abilities might need to consider limiting the number of stairs to more safely get in and around their RV.  We need to listen to our bodies and the concerns of loved ones when evaluating our ability to drive. It is not only your life at stake.

There will likely come a time when we have to give up our keys, but many times there are adjustments we can make to safely compensate for physical disabilities that come with age. Whether these limitations are temporary or lifelong, we need to evaluate our abilities and consider the safety of everyone on the road.

Resources for further study. We have only touched on a few of the issues that come with aging drivers. The links below contain a wealth of information from trusted sources.

AAA Senior Driving Rscource Guide Tips, articles, and laws to help seniors drive safer and longer 

AARP Driver Safety Guide Resources, tips, and driving assessment

The America Occupational Therapy Association Older Drier Safety Awareness Week

US Health and Human Services Information on aging for caregivers and seniors alike

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Information and statistics on aging driver