Have you ever suspected that someone was too old to drive? Perhaps it was the white-haired woman driving the speed limit in front of you, when you were gunning your engine and running late for an appointment. Or perhaps it was the widower next door who knocked over his trash can while backing slowly out of his driveway.
When is someone too old to drive?
As questions go, that’s a land mine! Before making assumptions about the safety of older drivers, consider these facts provided by Delaware’s own Mature Driver Safety Task Force. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a driver’s risk for involvement in an accident peaks around age 25 and begins to increase again at age 75 – whether or not they were at fault. And when involved in a crash, older people are much more likely to be injured or killed, regardless of whether they were the driver or the passenger. The same accident that can leave us scared and shaken at 50 can be very serious or deadly as we get older.
The legal community makes no distinction about when an individual is too old to drive. Driving laws are the same for older drivers as for the rest of the population and do not require mandatory retesting at any given age. For all drivers, the court can order a driving test after a crash or citation, or when deemed necessary by law enforcement. The majority of retests in Ohio are required of mature drivers.
The medical community also does not suggest an age at which people may be too old to drive; however, there are medical reasons why driving may become more challenging as we age. For example, older people tend to take more medications, some of which may affect agility and fine motor skills. Reflexes and reaction times decrease with age, and our vision and hearing acuity may do the same. All of these factors can cause our confidence in our driving skills to diminish with age, too, and while confidence behind the wheel is less concrete and more challenging to measure, it’s nonetheless essential for making sound, rapid judgments when reacting to traffic and road conditions.
So, when is someone too old to drive?
While older drivers are at greater risk behind the wheel, there is no age at which we should decide to automatically retire our driver’s license (or, for that matter, our parents’). That’s because driving ability, like most all other human abilities, is very difficult to quantify. Intelligence, physical strength, reading comprehension, emotional resilience — these and other human abilities often evade precise measurement, and the same is true with our ability to operate a vehicle.
Though there is no specific age at which we should question an older driver’s abilities, there are factors we can observe in ourselves and our older loved ones to routinely assess our own driving abilities. Ask yourself if you have experienced these changes:
• Getting lost frequently or feeling a bit confused behind the wheel.
• An increase in minor crashes, such as backing into the side of a garage or hitting curbs.
• Feeling fearful about driving on certain roads or at certain times of day.
• A loss of confidence about your driving abilities.
If you’re concerned about whether an older loved one might be having trouble driving, here are a few strategies to employ:
• Be on the lookout for new scratches or dents on the car, and gently ask questions when you do notice them.
• Accompany your parents occasionally and assess whether you feel safe as their passenger.
• Be aware of your parent’s behavior at home. A loved one who is struggling to operate the stove or the washing machine may be having difficulties operating their vehicle, as well.
If you feel concerned about any of these indicators with regard to your own driving or that of an older loved one, what should you do? Compared to other communities, Delaware County is rich in resources that can help safeguard older drivers.
I’ll share more information with you in an upcoming column about the specific resources available but, in the meantime, call SourcePoint with your questions. Our experts on aging can answer your questions and connect older drivers and their loved ones with the resources they need to feel safe behind the wheel. You can reach us at our main number at 740-363-6677, or visit us online at www.MySourcePoint.org. Our goal is to help our community thrive after 55 – including when you drive.
Stephanie Steinbeck is director of communications & development at SourcePoint.