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May 30, 2014

Should You Take the Keys From Mom or Dad?

Image courtesy of (Toa55) /

You’ve seen them.

You may have even cursed them or been involved in a near miss with them in traffic.

They’re the old dears who, well into their 70s and 80s and older who are still behind the wheel.

Well, Millennium Motorist, get ready for more and more of them because Baby Boomers are now graying in greater numbers and their fathers and mothers are still tooting about in their Cadillacs, Buicks and Crown Vics.

So, do we take the keys away from mom and dad when they hit 80?

Not necessarily, but it’s a good idea to take a good hard look at the topic with them and possibly get in touch with the family physician to see if mom or dad is still fit to drive. And it doesn’t hurt to look into state and local laws that govern motor vehicle license requirements.

We tend to believe aging motorists are a menace on the freeway, but are they?

True, when an 80-year-old meets a telephone pole or truck in his or her car chances are greater the senior is going to their reward over a younger driver able to withstand the impact.

Some studies show seniors are self-regulating when it comes to turning in their keys for common sense.

But, still others stubbornly cling to the car as a tether to independence.

Anyone who is or knows a senior, the eyes and reflexes start to go and that’s not a good thing when behind the wheel.

According to the American Automobile Association (AAA) there are some sobering statistics about senior drivers:

  •  Fifty percent of the middle-aged population and 80 percent of people in their 70s suffer from arthritis, crippling inflammation of the joints, which makes turning, flexing and twisting painful.
  • Weaker muscles, reduced flexibility and limited range of motion restrict senior drivers’ ability to grip and turn the steering wheel, press the accelerator or brake, or reach to open doors and windows.
  • More than 75 percent of drivers age 65 or older report using one or more medications, but less than one-third acknowledged awareness of the potential impact of the medications on driving performance.
  • Per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase beginning at age 75 and rise sharply after age 80. This is mainly due to increased risk of injury and medical complications, rather than an increased tendency to get into crashes.
  • Since senior drivers are more fragile, their fatality rates are 17 times higher than those of 25- to 64-year-olds.
  • In 2009, 33 million licensed drivers were over age 65 – a 20 percent increase from 1999. And by the year 2030, 70 million Americans in the U.S. will be over age 65 – and 85 to 90 percent of them will be licensed to drive.
  • In 2009, nearly 5,300 senior drivers were killed and 187,000 were injured in traffic crashes.
  • In 2009, more than 60 percent of deaths in crashes involving drivers over age 70 were senior drivers themselves and 16 percent were their passengers. Twenty-two percent of these deaths were occupants of other vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.3 By comparison, in the same year 42 percent of deaths in crashes involving at least one driver younger than age 30 were attributed to the younger drivers themselves and 24 percent were their passengers. Thirty-four percent were occupants of other vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.

In Ontario, Canada, changes are already in effect for drivers over 80.

On April 21 in Ontario, changes to the license testing for people aged 80-and-over took effect. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s new evaluation includes a vision assessment, in-class group education, review of the driver’s record and two short exercises, the latter to determine if further assessment is required.

The tests were outlined in a January article in Toronto’s Globe & Mail newspaper.

The big change is with the two exercises (click on the link to the left), that require drivers to draw the hands of a clock to 11:10, and to cross out each “H” from rows of letters. They are designed to evaluate basic auditory language skills, memory, motor functioning, and ability to plan and organize.

Dr. Louisa Gembora, an independent clinical psychologist specializing in rehabilitation and a driving instructor, says: “The clock drawing exercise seems simplistic, but it’s reliable and viable – we’ve used it for many years, providing the evidence to implement it.”

There is predictable anger among seniors who mistake a driver’s licence with a membership-for-life card, or who understandably believe clean driving records should speak amply on their behalf.

“It’s rank discrimination,” Tom Trent, 84, of Kitchener, Ont., wrote to me after the MTO announced the changes to reassess drivers when they hit 80.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is an “independent, nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses — deaths, injuries and property damage — from crashes on the nation’s roads.”

According to the IIHS, there are more seniors on the road, but surprisingly, fewer of them are involved in collisions, much as we like to think the graying drivers are a hazard.

A total of 4,079 people ages 70 and older died in crashes in 2012. That’s 31 percent fewer than in 1997, reports the insurance industry group.

Using its most recent data, the agency reports seniors are leery of their own abilities and are self-limiting their time behind the wheel.

Based on 2008 travel data, drivers 70 and older drove 45 percent fewer miles, on average, than drivers ages 35-54. Older drivers are traveling more miles than they used to. From 1995-96 to 2008, average yearly mileage increased by 42 percent for drivers 70 and older, compared with a 21 percent increase for drivers 33-54.

An IIHS survey of 2,500 drivers 65 and older found that “drivers with reported impairments in memory, vision, mobility and/or medical conditions such as arthritis or diabetes were more likely than other drivers to self-limit their driving by making fewer trips, traveling shorter distances, or avoiding night driving, driving on interstates or driving in ice or snow. This supports other research showing that many older drivers self-limit their driving.”

Troublingly, though, the agency found some seniors do not self-regulate or adjust their driving, even some with high levels of cognitive impairment.

Not surprisingly, seniors who are involved in collisions often do so in merging situations and at intersections.

Studies of senior-involved crashes have found that failure to yield the right-of-way is the most common error among seniors. Seniors are cited for this error more often than younger drivers. In a 2007 IIHS study of older drivers who were at fault in intersection crashes involving nonfatal injuries, drivers age 70 and older had more failure-to-yield crashes than younger drivers.

“Reasons for older drivers’ failure-to-yield crashes varied with age. Compared with younger and older drivers, drivers 70-79 were more likely to see another vehicle but misjudge whether there was time to proceed. Drivers 80 and older predominantly failed to see the other vehicle.”

Ah, the over 80 driver. For those of us with parents or grandparents topping that milestone age, few of us can admit we haven’t been concerned it’s time they hang up their keys.

In Florida, where one of the nation’s highest concentrations of elderly drivers reside, the state ranks tops among the most lax requirements for testing of drivers over 80.

In the Sunshine State, drivers over 80 are only required to renew their licences every six years. On turning 80, they’re next required to re-test at 86 and 92 and so on. Frightening when one considers the concentration of octogenarians in that retirement haven.

In an article in the Florida SunSentinel newspaper, two horrific examples of senior driving errors were chronicled.

“A 78-year-old woman was killed Sunday when she was backed into and run over by an 89-year-old driver at a Delray Beach Walmart. In Deerfield Beach, a woman was backed over and dragged across a church lawn by an 88-year-old driver.”

One of every five drivers in the Sunshine State is 65 or older, a ratio that will continue to increase as the Baby Boomers age, state safety experts say. Florida has 2.75 million drivers in that age category, the second-highest in the nation. California is first, with 3.1 million drivers age 65-plus.

In 2004, Florida joined the 40 states already requiring vision tests for older drivers. Floridians 80 and older must pass a visual-acuity exam upon each renewal. Previously, they could renew by mail for up to 18 years without a vision test.

Some might see that as progress, but, still, testing every eight years for drivers over 80? Have you ever driven in Florida or California? The number of dear old tiny heads behind the wheel is frightening when you consider the volume of traffic and the speed of highway traffic today.

At last count, as many as 17 states had no age-based license requirements for drivers.

For a full listing of the requirements, by state, for elderly drivers, there’s a chart here.

As I suggested earlier, it’s probably an individual family matter — an urgent one, mind you – that you have an honest discussion with mom or dad about the state of their driving abilities.

It will almost assuredly be difficult, but if you enlist the help of your family doc or another senior relative to help talk rationally about the topic, it can help smooth the ride, so to speak.

Hey, it’s better than getting a call in the middle of the night that mom or dad took out a bus shelter with four people inside. It happens, unfortunately, and it is going to be happening more in future, is the grim reality.

It’s up to those in the family to ensure it doesn’t happen to their mom, dad, aunt or uncle.


Chris Malette is a retired newspaper journalist with 35 years of experience as a reporter and city editor. Over his career, Malette covered municipal and federal politics, military, health and court beats. He has reported from Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and covered relief efforts in Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He now works for SPN News as an editorial columnist.