When is it time for seniors to hang up their keys?

A major national debate regarding the senior generation is whether there should be an age cap to driving a car. As the United States population ages, new fuel is added to the argument. Seniors feel that revoking driving privileges inhibits their freedom and independence, while driving-control proponents say that it is a matter of public safety.

About 66 percent of seniors older than 80-years-old in this country have active driver’s licenses and they are using them. Research shows that octogenarians (and older seniors) are driving more today than people their age in previous generations.

Older drivers tend to self-regulate their driving habits so as not to pose a danger for others. This means not driving in inclement weather, suspending driving after sunset, and avoiding highways or rush hour. Some older drivers even avoid making left-hand turns. However, age-related accidents are still fairly common. It is easy for an older driver to mistake the gas pedal for the brake, or otherwise get disoriented. Also, reaction times are not what they used to be.

In Massachusetts, senior-related car accidents reached 20 percent and in 2010 a new regulation was put in place. Since then, drivers older than 75 years must renew their driver’s licenses in person at an AAA office or the DMV. This test also requires the driver to prove the quality of their eyesight by passing a vision test or providing a vision screening certificate.

This law posed a problem for some elderly residents, as they had difficulty getting themselves to the DMV alone, which the state says can be a good sign. The Massachusetts legislature argued that this “problem” can be a good indicator of who is no longer fit for the road.

Although it is never easy to tell an elderly loved one that they are no longer fit to drive, it may be necessary for their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others. People tend to overestimate their abilities, regardless of age, which also happens when seniors self-evaluate their driving abilities. The message can be tempered with news that stopping driving does not mean being stranded. Many senior centers and medical offices have van services that are either free or covered by Medicaid and Medicare (when used for medical appointments).

The point at which a person is no longer a safe driver due to age and illness is also a time in which they often stop being able to do a lot of things for themselves. If you need to speak with your loved one about possibly stopping driving, then it may also be a time to have a conversation about the overall next step for care. How much longer will your loved one be able to live on their own? Does not having a driver’s license limit how long they can be on their own? Now is the time to start exploring long-term care options for the next stage of life.