We’ve all been there. It’s dusk and you’re on a two-lane highway behind a driver who’s going 30 kph under the speed limit. You try to be patient at first, but after a while you get irritated. Soon you find yourself groaning every time the driver slows to take a curve.
And, then finally it appears: a passing lane.
You accelerate faster than you probably should and pass the car. As you zip by, you notice the driver. She’s squinting to see the road properly and her shoulders are hunched toward the steering wheel. Her close-cropped grey hair brushes the visor. That explains the driving. She’s elderly.
Now if you’re anything like me, you’re hit with a whole flood of feelings.
You consider the fact that you shouldn’t be such a jerk, and that seniors have earned the right to go slow – they’ve driven these roads longer than any of us. Also, at least she’s going a speed she feels comfortable with; she’s being quite safe in that regard. Yet, still there is something that feels inherently dangerous about the situation.
Seniors represent the fastest-growing segment of drivers, according to the AAA Foundation, with current projections suggesting that a quarter of all drivers will be over 65 by 2025.
While seniors are not the worst drivers out there, just a quick flip through the newspapers delivers a sobering reminder. Behind the wheel, even the tiniest lapse in motor skills, attention, or reaction time can be tragic.
We often think of distracted driving as texting or talking on the phone – and justifiably so. Texting takes a driver’s eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds, which is essentially driving the length of a football field at 88 kph blindfolded. But, in addition to these “distractions of choice,” there are also other subtle factors to take into consideration, things that are more difficult to detect than a cell phone in a driver’s hand. Sometimes a person’s ability to focus on the road is simply based on the way their brain processes stimuli.
One study posits that perhaps older drivers struggle with distraction on the road because, as it turns out, aging brains tend to focus on the background of moving objects instead of the actual moving objects themselves. This heightened awareness of irrelevant background noise – people, cars, scenery – distracts their brains from what’s happening right ahead of them on the road.
It’s important that we, their friends and family, are on the lookout for the warning signs that perhaps our seniors should no longer be behind the wheel.
- Are there a lot of dents and scratches on the car and/or scrapes on the mailbox or garage?
- Have they been in an accident [collision] or had frequent close calls?
- Have they received multiple traffic tickets or warnings?
- Do they get lost going to familiar places?
- Do they forget where they are going while on the way?
- Do they drive too slowly or fail to maintain a proper distance?
- Do they have trouble seeing or following road signs or pavement markings?
- Do they have a hard time turning their head to check their mirrors or blind spots?
- Do they brake too slowly or confuse their brake and gas pedals?
- Do other drivers honk at them or complain about their driving?
Needless to say, a senior’s diminished driving ability is not their fault. It’s just biology. And, in all likelihood, it’s an unsettling and unwelcome development for the senior. Broaching the subject requires a good dose of thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Imagine we’re 30-40 years in the future and you’re the one being told to give up your car.
If you suspect your loved one might be feeling insecure behind the wheel, you can start by printing off this Self-Rating Tool. It’s a simple way to open the conversation and get a good gauge for their skill without making an uncomfortable trip to the DMV.
Giving up the keys can feel like a huge loss of freedom; but, it does not have to be. Seniors can find more personal freedoms in alternative transportation than you might think.
The University of New Brunswick compiled a report addressing the issues of transportation for rural seniors. It outlines the following methods of transportation as senior-accessible:
- Taxi services
- Friends and family
- Nursing homes
- Private senior care companies
- Municipal services such as railways and intercity busses
If you don’t feel like digging into a big academic report, here’s a great list of available ride programs throughout Canada.
When one gives up the ability to get around of their own accord, life suddenly takes a bit more coordinating. It’s important that seniors are equipped with the tools to remain self sufficient and plugged-in. If the van driver doesn’t show up, they have to be able to call someone. Life without a vehicle, especially in rural regions, becomes more about interdependence – calling upon one’s children for a run to the grocery store or scheduling a shuttle to the doctor’s office – and in that, communication is key.
It can be hard to know when it’s the right time to talk to our elderly friends and parents about giving up their driving privileges. It simply starts with being observant. And remember, no matter how awkward the conversation might be, it’s well worth it.