For Baby Boomers, the largest generation in U.S. history, cars are a symbol of independence and a rite of passage. As Boomers age, it may become more difficult for some of them to continue to drive cars safely. Research suggests older drivers outlive a safe driving age by seven to 10 years.
Many caregivers and family members wrestle with when and how to have a conversation with an aging parent or loved one about whether it’s safe for them to continue operating a car. They may be asking the questions: how old is too old to drive? How should I talk with my parents about when to stop driving? Is it okay to take the keys away from an aging parent?
These questions and conversations are difficult, because losing one’s keys often signals a loss of independence. However, it’s so necessary for their safety and the safety of others on the road. Older drivers, particularly those who are over the age of 75, have higher crash death rates than middle-aged drivers between the ages of 35 and 54, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By 2030, one in every five Americans will be at a retirement age and older people are expected to outnumber children for the first time ever.
Senior Service Providers See Issue Firsthand
Tom Egan, CEO of the Foundation for Senior Living (FSL), has led and participated in these difficult discussions. FSL is a nonprofit that offers seniors in Arizona various services, from affordable housing to caregiving support and transportation assistance. According to Egan, the need is great.
In our country right now, we have the largest demographic of people who are turning 65. Every eight seconds in our country, somebody turns 65. That’s 10,000 people a day.
“It's not going to be that person right at 65 who is often going to need our services,” Egan said. “It'll be when he or she turns 75, 80 or 85, as mobility becomes more of a challenge, as healthcare becomes more of a challenge, and, oftentimes, memory becomes a challenge.”
Egan also sees firsthand how children and loved ones of aging parents may struggle with how to have the conversation with their parents about giving up the keys when it is no longer safe to drive. When children begin to take more of a parental role, Egan said, it can create tension within families.
“Those are some of the most challenging conversations that I've seen families have to have – those conversations where you have to talk about, ‘Hey, it's time to take mom or dad's keys away.’” Egan said. “Those can pull families apart.”
In one instance, he said, it took multiple doctors, caregivers, and family members to help an elderly man realize he should no longer be behind the wheel. So what are contributing factors that increase dangers for older drivers?
To Drive or Not to Drive?
Seniors often have health conditions, vision impairments, and process information more slowly, which compounds the risks of driving. Even before their families notice symptoms of declining memory, some older drivers may also experience the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, making it dangerous for them to drive before they are willing or aware of the need to stop.
As a person gets older, these factors can merge or overlap, with disastrous results. According to the CDC, more than 700 older drivers are injured and 19 are killed in auto accidents each day.
From individual family experiences to broad national statistics, the evidence is frighteningly clear: sometimes, driving is no longer safe for older individuals. And yet, the relationship between cars and independence is more than symbolic; stripping aging Boomers of their independence can be heartbreaking..
“I think for the Baby Boomer generation and the generation before them, you think about driving, getting your license, getting your first car, that was how you experienced the world,” Egan said.
Furthermore, according to the Brookings Institute, nearly 80 percent of elderly people live in suburban or rural areas where cars are a near-necessity. When older people stop driving, they are twice as likely to experience depression. Egan explained that a lack of mobility and isolation go hand-in-hand for seniors.
“You're immediately isolating that person [when you take away their main mode of transportation] because they can't get out to see their friends, they can't get out to go to the grocery store … There's missed or late medical appointments and all of those things are going to have an impact on somebody's health,” Egan explained.
How to Talk to a Loved One
When talking to a loved one about whether it’s safe for him or her to drive, these mental and physical health considerations should all be part of the conversation. In one instance, Egan said, a family saw many signs—like dents on the car—that clearly showed it was no longer safe for their loved one to be behind the wheel, but the driver’s family was too scared to bring it up.
Complicating matters further, seniors themselves often don’t bring up the discussion of when they should stop driving. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, over 80 percent of seniors never discuss driving with their family or doctor, and 15 percent only do so because an accident has already occurred.
We created this checklist to help break the conversation down into five steps.
The Potential for Self-Driving Cars
Egan especially understands the importance of transportation for seniors. FSL operates around 25 apartment complexes in Arizona and offers some form of transportation, usually a small van, to residents at each. Its fleet drove more than 400,000 miles last year.
Not all seniors have such access, and even FSL’s service is limited.
“I can’t staff that 24 hours a day,” Egan said.
This is one of the reasons FSL has partnered with Let’s Talk Self-Driving to educate the public about the potential of fully self-driving technology to help address the issue of senior mobility and safety and ensure a continued mobility independence.
Fully autonomous technology, such as the Waymo Driver, is constantly vigilant. The Waymo Driver's sensor suite can not only see what's right in front of it, but also what surrounds it. With Waymo’s next-generation vision system, it can respond to objects up to 500 meters away. Waymo’s technology is designed to be a cautious, defensive driver. In the future, fully self-driving cars have the potential to help seniors reap many of the benefits of driving without many of the same risks they encounter now.
If overall health and well-being are incorporated into the conversation, it’s likely to be less confrontational. Ask your loved one about their transportation needs and plan alternative ways to meet them. The aim isn’t to take away someone’s independence, but to ensure their safety.
If you’re wondering whether it’s time to have this talk, the answer is likely yes. It’s important to have the conversation early and agree on a plan of action before it’s absolutely necessary. For instance, you could suggest that your loved one takes another driving test when he or she reaches a certain age. Of course, even this can seem daunting.
Egan has pointed out self-driving technology could also change the conversation around when to take the keys away.
“I think once this technology is more integrated into our community it could eliminate the really painful conversation that families must have about when it is time to stop driving,” he said. “Or, it at least provides an option for an individual to say, ‘Hey, I don't have to drive to maintain my independence. I have another option.’”
Read more about Egan’s work and the Foundation for Senior Living.
Join us in the most important conversations about how self-driving technology may shape the future of safety, mobility, community, and society.