Even when it was becoming clear that my 83-year-0ld mother should no longer be driving because she seemed increasingly confused, I waffled. Her doctor said she should give it up because she was having memory problems and her reaction time was slower than normal. I still hesitated. It was the one thing she enjoyed more than anything else — she loved driving aimlessly through neighborhoods and down country roads. Every yard sale along the way beckoned to her and she would often return with a trunkful of treasures. Her car was her refuge, a place of solitude and an escape from worry and stress. I just hated to take that away from her. Every time I brought it up, she would get very upset and assure me that she was a good and careful driver. And so, I found myself simply warning her to be careful.
Until my friend Maureen Clancy told me about the accident that killed her father.
William Murphy was 65 and recently retired. On November 8, 2006, he started a part time job at L.L. Bean in Freeport. About 10:00 that night he was driving home to South Portland in the rain on Interstate 295. At the same time, an 84-year-old man was driving north on the Interstate. Only he was in the wrong lane.
A Portland police officer had spotted him driving north in the southbound lane near Tukey’s bridge and tried desperately to get his attention. “But the man didn’t see him,” Maureen told me, “and he just plowed straight ahead going more than 60 miles an hour up 295 in the wrong direction. My father was coming down at about the same speed and just around Falmouth — you know, the police officer saw the whole thing — he hit my father head on. Both he and my father were killed.”
Maureen later learned that the man’s family had tried to take away his car. “We were told he had a limited license and wasn’t supposed to go that far from home,” she recalled. “We met with the son. I think he was heartbroken. Obviously, that his father was dead, but also that he took somebody else’s life at the same time.”
I was stunned to hear Maureen’s story, and it made me look at my mother’s situation in a whole new light. It wasn’t just about her. She could hurt or kill someone. That night I told her she couldn’t drive anymore. It was non-negotiable. I would make sure she could still do the things she enjoyed, but she would have to be a passenger, not the driver.
Warning signs that driving is dangerous
If you’re concerned that an older person in your life should stop driving, but aren’t sure, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a list of common warning signs.
- Does the driver confuse the gas and brake pedals or have difficulty working them? Drivers who lift their legs to move from the accelerator to the brake, rather than keeping a heel on the floor and pressing with the toes, may be signaling waning leg strength.
- Does the driver seem to ignore or miss stop signs and other traffic signals? Perhaps the driver is inattentive or cannot spot the signs in a crowded, constantly moving visual field.
- Does the driver weave between or straddle lanes? Signaling incorrectly or not at all when changing lanes can be particularly dangerous, especially if the driver fails to check mirrors or blind spots.
- Do other drivers honk or pass frequently, even when the traffic stream is moving relatively slowly? This may indicate difficulty keeping pace with fast-changing conditions.
- Does the driver get lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places? This could indicate problems with working memory or early cognitive decline.
- The driver has been issued two or more traffic tickets or warnings in the past two years. Tickets can predict greatest risk for collision.
- The driver has been involved in two or more collisions or “near-misses” in the past two years. Rear-end crashes, parking lot fender-benders and side collisions while turning across traffic rank as the most common mishaps for drivers with diminishing skills, depth perception or reaction time.
- Using a “copilot” to help respond to situations in the driving environment. Anyone who cannot drive safely and comfortably without a copilot should not drive at all.
- Driving too slow or too fast for conditions. Driving too slow can be a sign that the driver is compensating for slowed reflexes or reduced reaction time. Those who drive too fast may not realize how fast they are traveling or are overcompensating due to a fear of being noticed for driving too slowly.
Preparing for a difficult conversation about driving habits
If the warning signs are there, what should you do? The first thing is to have a conversation with the person. AAA has a great website called SeniorDriving that has an abundance of useful information, including how to prepare for a conversation on the subject.
It offers these tips:
- Conduct a “ride-along” with the driver. Join the driver as a passenger during several trips and note your thoughts and observations – both positive and negative. Try to ride with the driver at different times to get a good sense of driving performance under a variety of road conditions.
- Consult those with special knowledge. Discuss your concerns with a law enforcement officer, an elder-law attorney or a geriatrician about any concerns and seek advice tailored to your specific situation. Collect information about local options for a professional driving assessment and driver retraining courses.
- Understand the older adult’s transportation needs. Determine the purposes for the older adult’s driving. Consider medical appointments, social obligations, religious commitments, shopping, and community activities. Doing so will help you to appreciate how important driving is to the senior driver and assist you in finding transportation alternatives.
- Determine local transportation services. Generate a list of different services available, the cost to use them, scheduling, phone numbers and so forth to share when you initiate the conversation about driving. Try taking trips on several of these services, so you understand how to use them and whether or not they are convenient and easy to use and access.
Write it all down. Once you’ve completed your research, organize the information. Use it to develop an action plan for your conversation. Then, after you have had a productive conversation, document the plan you and the older adult mutually agreed to pursue and review it together for accuracy.
Don’t take chances
Maureen says her mother, now in her 70s, has already told her to take away the keys if she is no longer a safe driver. “Unfortunately,” she says, “if we hadn’t been through this situation I don’t think we’d even think about it. We often don’t think about those things until something bad happens. You want to be independent. You want to be able to get around if you’ve been driving your whole life. All of a sudden you can’t. It’s hard, I get the other side of the coin, but I think in our family there won’t be an argument. When someone gets that way we’re just going to say, ‘Listen, you’re done.”
And that is what I had to say to my mother. I hid her keys and let all my siblings know what I had done and why. None of them disagreed and I think they were all grateful that I had the guts to do it. Yes, I did have to muster up a lot of courage. But imagine the courage it would take to face someone after it’s too late. Someone like Maureen and her family.