Older Drivers

Having The Talk About Driving

Talking with an older person about their driving is often difficult. Most of us delay that conversation until the person’s driving has become what we believe to be dangerous. At that point, conversations can be tense and awkward for everyone involved, and the older driver may feel like his or her freedom to participate in the community is suddenly being taken away. But there are things you can say and do to make those conversations more productive.

Prepare for the Conversation

  • Start early. Be proactive and plan to talk with an older driver BEFORE problems begin.
  • Observe Driving Ability. Gather information about the older person’s driving skills and capabilities. Read “Finding Out About Driving Problems” for tips on observing an older driver, questions to ask, and warning signs to watch for.
  • Determine Transportation Needs. Understand the transportation needs of the older person before having the conversation with them. What community activities do they enjoy? When do they visit the doctor? How do they get their shopping done? Do they attend religious services? Are they helping another older adult get around town?

Learn About Resources

See if local community, government, or religious organizations have programs to help older adults with driver education or transportation alternatives. Check with senior centers, the Red Cross, and other civic organizations.

  • Consider Professional Advice. You may wish to talk to the older adult’s physician, other healthcare provider (such as a vision specialist), a law enforcement officer, an elder law attorney, or geriatric care manager about any concerns.
  • Research Driver Assessment Programs. Look into professional driving assessments done by a certified driving rehabilitation specialist or occupational therapist. They may provide suggestions that may resolve some safety issues such as driver re-training, selective driving restrictions, or vehicle modifications.
  • Research Transportation Alternatives. Take a trip yourself so you can help the older adult understand how to use these modes of transportation. Have available a list of transportation options and family, friends, or neighbors willing to help transport the older adult.

Tips for a Successful Conversation

Since an older driver may not be aware of his or her limitations or may be reluctant to talk about them, it is important to introduce the subject of driving issues gently. You can do several things to increase the likelihood that conversations about driving will go well.

  • Start with a one-on-one conversation. To lead the conversation, pick someone in the family or a trusted friend who the older adult driver may listen to more than others. If possible, identify a person who has already had to cut back on or stop driving and who is taking actions to stay connected to the things that are important to him or her.

    In some families, it works better to have just one person have the conversation. In other families, having several family members express their concern will underscore the family’s concern for the older person’s safety. However, avoid holding a large family meeting and “ganging up” on the older driver. You are not trying to stage an “intervention.”
  • Focus on safety. Explain that the safety of the driver and others, and not necessarily giving up driving, is the immediate goal. Modifications may help keep the driver safe.
  • Focus on maintaining the older adult’s independence. Make clear that the goal is for the driver to be able to continue the activities he or she currently enjoys while staying safe. Offer to help support the person stay independent. For example, you might say: “I’ll help you figure out how to get where you want to go if driving is not possible.”
  • Be positive, supportive, and affirming. Appreciate the significance of a driver’s license to the older person. Be sympathetic with the person and be sensitive to their feelings about having to restrict or eliminate an activity that has been an important part of their independence. Listen with compassion and work with them to find solutions.
  • Avoid Confrontation. Use “I” messages rather than “You” messages. For example, say, “I am concerned about your safety when you are driving,” rather than, “You’re no longer a safe driver.” Use terms like “safe driving,” “driving retirement,” or “driving cessation.” Don’t talk about “giving up the keys.”
  • Stick to the facts. Focus on the older driver’s actual driving capabilities, based on information you have gathered, not on his or her age. Remember, it’s physical and brain health -- not age -- that matters most in driving safely.
  • Don’t be put off by negative reactions. Bringing up the subject of their driving abilities can make some drivers defensive, angry, hurt, or withdrawn. Allow the person to express their thoughts and feelings. Use appropriate responses such as: “I understand that this may be upsetting,” or “We’ll work together to find a solution.” Then gently return to your main points, emphasizing that safety is the primary concern.

Points To Cover

Here are some points you might want to cover in your conversation.

  • Current Driving Conditions. One way to jump-start a conversation about driving concerns is to talk about today’s road conditions and driver behaviors. Much has changed since the older generation began driving. There is more traffic congestion. People tend to drive more miles and for longer periods of time than in the past, many drive faster and more aggressively, and others drive while distracted. This can make driving more stressful than it was in the past.
  • Level of Driving Comfort. Ask the older driver how comfortable he or she feels at the wheel. Ask about specific situations where you may be concerned that the person is having difficulty. Ask about and affirm any steps that the older driver has already taken to ensure their own safe driving, such as limiting night or rush hour driving.
  • Transportation Needs. Affirm the importance of the activities that require transportation. Point out that there is more than one way to get to an activity. You might say: “I understand that driving is important to you, but is it more important how you get somewhere, or what you do when you get there?”
  • Specific Driving Issues. Indicate that you have noticed changes in the person that seem to be making it more difficult to drive. Make sure you have the facts you collected about the person’s driving.
  • Concerns About Safety. Clearly express your concerns about safety and the risks to the person and others on the road if the person’s driving habits continue. If appropriate, review possible results if things don’t change, such as injury to the person and others. Explain that an injury could be much more disruptive to the person’s life than not driving.
  • Concerns About Independence. Remember that it is hard for people to cut back on or stop their driving if they think it will mean they can no longer take part in activities they enjoy. Be sure to address the older adult’s concerns about getting around and the importance of maintaining connections to the people, places and activities that are important to the person’s life. You might say: “We will find a way to get you to church every Sunday.”
  • Strategies. Talk about steps that could improve the situation. These could include driver refresher courses, self-assessments, vision rehabilitation, equipping the car with adaptive devices, buying a car with new safety features, alternatives to driving and limiting driving.

Discuss a Transportation Plan

After talking with the older driver about your concerns, introduce the idea of a transportation plan. This does not necessarily mean that the driver will need to stop driving altogether. It may mean doing an activity less often or arranging for the person to carpool to an activity and thus share the driving responsibility. But if the person is showing signs of declining abilities, decreased awareness, or both, you will likely want to work together with the older adult and other family and friends to develop a plan.

A plan could involve the following elements.

  • Limited driving by the older person. The person will likely need to modify their driving habits. For example, to avoid heavy traffic, trips may be limited to places that are easy to get to and during times when there is less traffic. Avoiding driving at night, in bad weather and in risky situations like merging into traffic or making left turns are other steps that might be considered.
  • Public transportation. Buses and trains operate on fixed schedules and at designated stops. Many have discounted or even free fares for older adults and teach you how to use the system. Many buses allow you to get on and off without climbing stairs.
  • Paratransit services. Designed for people with disabilities who cannot take regular public transportation, these services have vans or mini-buses that pick you up and drop you off at the curb outside your home or at your front door. A doctor may need to sign the application.
  • Taxis. The person can share a cab with a friend to save money. There may be discounted fares for older adults. Some taxis are wheelchair-accessible.
  • Rides from friends and family members. The person could offer to pay for gas.
  • Shuttle services for older adults. Some local governments and private nonprofits operate vans or buses to take people around. Some services are for people with physical or mental disabilities.
  • Rideshare or other programs.
  • Volunteer driver programs. Local religious and nonprofit organizations and small businesses offer free or low-cost rides in volunteers’ personal cars.

For more about alternative modes of transportation, see "Other Ways to Get Around."

For tips and tools to help an older person put together a plan, see Developing a Mobility Action Plan.

Following Through

Once a transportation plan has been established, it is important to review it from time to time to make sure it still works for the person and is still relevant to their lifestyle. Changes in health, recommendations from a doctor, and personal interests should also be taken into account as time goes on. There may be new options available for older adults, which can facilitate an older individual’s transition. New forms of public transportation may exist, new groups or organizations may be offering help for older adults, and there may be new driver rehabilitation programs.