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When to Put the Brakes on Driving: Autonomy vs Safety


A driver’s license is often considered a symbol of independence for both new and older drivers alike.  Your ability to go shopping, attend social functions, participate at places of worship, and engage in other activities daily without relying on anyone else provides freedom and independence. The decision to give up one’s car keys can be a highly charged and emotional topic in our car-dependent society.

We live in an aging society and this means that the number of older drivers on our highways is also increasing. According to recent US Census reports, Erie County has a greater concentration of older adults than both New York State and the United States as a whole. For example, between 1970 and 2010, Erie County’s population age 75 and over increased by 75.6% and the fastest growing segment of the population, those individuals age 85 and over, increased by a whopping 213%. The aging of the baby boomer generation means that these trends are expected to continue well into the next decade so the debates regarding driving and age are not likely to go away any time soon.

The statistics regarding older drivers can also send somewhat conflicting messages. For example, older drivers are at greater risk for injury if they are involved in a vehicular accident and have a higher fatality rate than their younger counterparts. On the other hand, older drivers also have the lowest crash rates per licensed driver, they tend to drive less, they use seat belts more frequently, and are less likely to drive under the influence of alcohol.

Despite the media attention that often accompanies an accident involving an older driver, research illustrates that age alone is a very poor predictor of who will become involved in an accident. While the vast majority of older drivers operate their vehicles in a safe manner, there are those who continue to drive when they are at increased risk due to physical and cognitive impairments. Driving a vehicle requires the coordination of a range of complex skills that can diminish as we age. Reduced vision and hearing abilities, slowdowns in reaction time, and limitations in a person’s range of motion are some of the changes that accompany the aging process. Older drivers often recognize these physical and mental changes and make adjustments in their driving to compensate for these limitations. For example, many older adults do not drive long distances, don’t drive on expressways, avoid driving in bad weather or during rush hour, limit their driving to familiar locations, and avoid driving at night or at dusk.

In some instances, a driver’s health or physical limitations do cause unsafe, dangerous, and life threatening situations to occur. For family members and friends of an at-risk driver, the challenges can be both confusing and difficult. Studies have shown that many families avoid discussing their concerns about a loved one’s driving abilities. When a family member has to give up driving, everyone’s life is impacted. An older person loses independence and freedom and the family may now have to increase their level of involvement by assisting with that person’s transportation needs.

Just because someone is getting older doesn’t mean they have to give up the privilege of driving. The key is to take steps that assure that safety is first for oneself and others. There are a number of measures older adults can take that will increase their self sufficiency and ability to drive safely well into the future.  Numerous resources are available that can assist an individual or family member who has concerns or questions about a person’s driving ability. They address issues that range from how to begin the conversation with a loved one whose driving abilities are of concern, to actions that can be taken when a person continues to drive after all appropriate evaluations have been made and they refuse to stop driving voluntarily.

For more information about resources available to older drivers and their families, call Erie County Department of Senior Services’ Information and Assistance number at 858-8526.