What to Do When It’s Time for Your Parents to Stop Driving

Ask a group of midlife adults which family conversations they’re looking forward to least, and telling their parents it’s time to stop driving is always near the top of the list. As driving is so closely tied to independence, most of us naturally resist the idea of giving it up. But because driving is such a high-risk activity, we’re all responsible for making sure our parents — and the people around them — are safe.What to Do When It's Time for Your Parents to Stop Driving: a Step by Step Guide

Here’s what to do when it’s time for your parents to stop driving.

It’s Time for Your Parents to Stop Driving: a Step by Step Guide

First, know that most older drivers are safe behind the wheel. In fact, older drivers are often safer than younger drivers in a few important ways.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, drivers age 65 and older are less likely to drive after drinking, less likely to drive at night and during bad weather, and more likely to wear seat belts than younger drivers.

However, auto crash fatalities increase from age 70 onward and spike after age 85, in part due to the fact that seniors are often more medically fragile than younger drivers. Among the most common contributors to decreased driving safety are cognitive decline and vision problems.

Although there’s no particular age at which we’re no longer safe to drive, the likelihood of unsafe driving does rise as we get older, so if your parents are 70 or older (or younger and not in good health), it pays to ride along with them from time to time and to look for the warning signs that it might be time to garage the car for good.

1. Know the signs that it’s time to stop driving.

While some of us are happy to give up driving when it no longer feels safe, most of us tend to minimize problems, so it’s up to family and friends to be alert for changes that put your parents at risk.

Safety experts say there are many signs to look for, some more subtle than others:

Getting feedback from law enforcement and others

  • An increase in accidents or tickets
  • An increase in insurance premiums or policy cancellation
  • When their neighbors tell you they’re concerned for their property and safety
  • When your kids or grandkids ride with them and then say there are problems

Hitting (or nearly hitting) stationary objects

  • Parking problems
  • Signs on the car of scrapes and minor collisions

Not seeing others on the road

  • An inability to turn their head to check blind spots and behind the car
  • Near misses
  • Trouble seeing at night

Not seeing or understanding traffic signals and signs

  • Going the wrong way
  • Speeding, especially in residential areas and school zones
  • Stopping at all intersections regardless of signs and signals

Showing signs of cognitive decline

  • Drifting across lanes
  • Driving too slowly, especially on highways
  • Forgetting to use a seatbelt, headlights, or turn signals
  • Forgetting where they’re going or getting lost on the way to a place they know well
  • Hitting the brakes instead of the gas, and vice versa
  • New road rage or anxiety behind the wheel
  • Slowed response time
  • Trouble making decisions in the moment

Make a note of the signs you see and keep your notes handy when you’re planning your talk with your parents. But before you call them up or go to their place, it’s helpful to take a couple of other steps first: Reframe the discussion and build a team.

2. Reframe the “time to stop driving” conversation.

It’s human nature that most of us balk when we’re told we can no longer do something, and bluntly telling your folks they need to stop driving is almost guaranteed to send them into argue mode. That’s because “stop driving” sounds like “stop getting out of the house, seeing your friends, going to the doctor, and having a life.”

Many seniors do experience a decline in their quality of life and in their health once they stop driving because they don’t have alternative transportation in place. That’s why the best way to approach this conversation is not with “here’s what we need you to stop doing” but “here’s how you can keep safely getting out and enjoying your life.” If your parents are like most, they’ll also want to talk over their options with other people they trust — or just hear the same message from those people about the need for them to hand over the keys—before they agree.

3. Use a transition team.

The “time to stop driving” conversation is not one you want to have on your own. That’s because your parents may see your concerns as unfounded, and because if you don’t have enough information about transportation options when you talk to them, they may be convinced that losing their keys will be the end of leaving the house. Also, if you have siblings who disagree with your position, it’s better to sort things out with them first so your parents don’t use your sibs’ lack of concern as a reason to dismiss your worries.

Before you have “the talk” (and realistically, it will probably be several talks over time) with your mom or dad, you’ll need to talk with a few people to get their opinions and, perhaps, ask for their help convincing your parent to be safe.

  • A senior driver safety examiner who can assess your parents’ driving skills
  • Other family members who share your concerns
  • The DMV, if need be, to call your parents in for a review of their driving skills
  • The local police department, if your parent refuses to stop driving and is a danger to others
  • Your parents’ doctor, who may recommend driving restrictions or stoppage based on their health
  • Your parents’ friends and neighbors who may have seen unsafe driving
  • Your parents’ landlord or senior community manager who may be worried about property damage or pedestrian injuries on their property

4. Try to find transportation alternatives.

Before you start talking with your parents, you’ll also want to find out about all the transportation alternatives in their area. You can offer to help them get familiar with the local bus, subway or train system; set up an account with a ride-share or taxi service; hire a home care assistant to drive your folks around; or reach out to a volunteer service that offers rides for seniors.

When you present these options to your folks, try to start shifting their mindset – there are people who enjoy life, even in suburbs, without driving a car. Without car maintenance and insurance costs, they can usually offset the fees for taxis or bus fare.

5. Have the conversation with your parents.

This is the toughest part, but you can do it. Remember these steps:

  • Prepare first: Talk to anyone who’s voiced concerns about your parent’s driving and to other family members so you can present a unified front.
  • Frame the conversation not as a loss but as a change: A lot of the resistance to giving up driving is due to the fear of being stranded and isolated at home with no way to get around, but in most areas there are alternatives that can keep your parents active and safe.
  • State your concerns and start talking about alternative methods of getting around: If your parents insist that they’re fine, offer to take them for a senior driver safety evaluation or to their doctor—and offer to ease off if they pass with flying colors. If they get upset, take a break from the discussion and pick it up again later. If they’re interested in transportation alternatives, offer to go with them as they try out a few. Change is always easier with support.
  • Remember that this discussion may be a process, not a one-time thing: You can start by getting some concessions out of your folks that they will no longer drive at night, or on the freeway, or with their grandchildren in their car. Then, if warning signs persist, continue to discuss safer alternatives and appropriate limitations on their driving.
  • Balance consideration for your parents’ feelings with realism about the risks to their safety and to others: Ultimately, being safe is in your parents’ best interests, too.
  • Know your options if your parents absolutely refuse to stop driving: When a parent refuses to stop driving despite clear evidence that they’re unsafe on the road, some families take drastic action like hiding their parent’s car keys, disabling the car, or even sending the car out for “repairs” that are never quite done. These steps can keep your parent off the road but they may also be illegal and can spark family conflict. In some states, you can file a request for driver review with the department of motor vehicles, although it can take a few months for them to get around to calling your parents in for a test. In the worst case scenario, you might simply have to talk with the police to help get your parent off the road.

Fortunately, this level of intervention isn’t necessary for most families, who just need the right information about transportation alternatives, a unified approach to addressing the problem, and the patience to have the driving talk more than once.

For detailed information about senior services near you and your parents, call SeniorAdvisor.com at 1-800-805-3621.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.

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