One of the last vestiges of youth is your driver’s license - and at some point, you have to give that up. Whether it’s you or a family member, someone will need to decide when it’s time for you to stop driving.
There are many reasons why senior citizens may lose their licenses. Some aren’t as mentally sharp as they once were; others experience changes in eyesight or hearing, their reflexes become slower, or they may have memory problems.
Other senior citizens live in cities where it’s really hard to get around: there are 71 streets named “Peachtree” in Atlanta - if you’re experiencing mental confusion, you could get lost very easily; Boston has its rotaries - get yourself in the middle of one of those and you could be going in circles for a while; and Los Angeles has 24-hour traffic.
Challenges like these can make driving deadly. How deadly? Seniors (those over 70 years of age) account for the highest percentage of fatal car crashes among all drivers.
Continuing education is important
How many years has it been since you took a formal driving class - fifty years? Sixty? Can you imagine the kind of care you’d receive if your doctor didn’t attend continuing education classes for fifty years?
Roads get more crowded everyday. Other drivers are distracted with phone calls, texts, and emails. And cars come in all sizes, making it hard to know what you're looking for. There are super tiny vehicles, such as Smart cars, that can hide in a blind spot - and there are 4x4’s that are so tall, they intimidate even the most experienced drivers.
AARP and AAA help retrain older drivers
Most classes are offered online and in classrooms. Some offer behind-the-wheel instruction, but those are harder to find. A vast number of seniors opt to take the classes online because it gives them the freedom to study at their pace, and if they don't understand a section they can review it as many times as they like.
Classroom instruction is more interactive, with students sharing experiences of what it's like to be a senior driver, and how they have made accommodations for physical changes.
Picking a driving school
The three types of driving schools are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, a senior who finds an online class beneficial could matriculate to behind-the-wheel instruction.
Each driver has unique challenges that make driving difficult. A family member may want to work with the senior to review driving schools that are offered nearby. Perhaps one school specializes in working with seniors who are losing their hearing, or another can help a mature driver learn some new on-road driving techniques.
Relearning the rules of driving with new techniques
Senior drivers have to adapt to their new reality, and driving schools can provide them with new techniques to stay safe.
Online and classroom learning start with the basics. The students relearn traffic rules, review road signs, learn to navigate intersections with multiple signals, and become familiarized with road markings such as double or triple right turn lanes.
Then the students learn new driving techniques such as scanning, which is a strategy where the driver constantly moves his head and eyes to know what's around. It can be a difficult tactic to master at first, especially if the driver tends to lock their hands at “10-and-2” and only look straight ahead.
Slower reaction time is normal for aging drivers. To address this, students learn how to create a “driving cushion” between themselves and the car ahead to reduce the chances of a surprise stop. So, if the driver is used to leaving three car lengths of space from the car in front, he’ll be taught to leave four or five to account for slower reaction time.
Driving in traffic
In big cities there’s no such thing as “no traffic.” There may be less traffic, but having no traffic isn’t likely.
Driving classes will help seniors identify when it's safe and not so safe to be on the road, based on physical limitations. For example, if you live near a school and your reflexes are slower, it might be safer to be on the road during the middle of the day when people are at work and kids are in school. If you have trouble with night vision, your instructor might suggest getting off the road by late afternoon.
The on-the-road classes will take you out on the highway to practice your new driving techniques. You'll learn to safely enter and exit the highway, execute lane changes, and maneuver around big trucks.
On-road instruction can be scary for anyone, young or old. If you're not comfortable driving with an instructor, don't do it. Instead, study the sections in your instruction book that focus on heavy traffic, and see if you can implement the lessons on your own.
Learning to deal with potential hazards
Surface streets and highways are scary places. People tend to drive way too fast, motorcycles cut in between lanes, and sooner or later you’ll stumble upon a pile-up.
If you’re a person who tends to get agitated over small things, a driving school would be a good place for you; the instructors will teach you how to co-exist with fellow drivers, and provide some some tips you can follow that will help you recall your lessons if you are in the middle of a scary situation.
Are mature driver courses necessary?
No, a driver’s course isn’t necessary for a senior to keep his or her license - but it might be an unbiased gauge as to whether or not the driver is safe on the road. Giving up your license is a big deal; it’s the loss of freedom. Before you ask a loved one to stop driving, or before you decide it’s time to stop driving, ask a neutral third party what they advise.
For the senior, maybe by updating your knowledge of rules of the road and learning some new techniques, you’ll extend your time behind the wheel.
How will you know when it’s time to give up your license?
It’s a difficult decision, and every person’s experience will be different. But, here are a few common occurrences that can indicate when it’s time to stop driving.
Close calls become more frequent.
Hitting things such as parked cars or mailboxes; misjudging curbs.
Confusion of where you're going or how to get home.
Slower reaction time.
Getting honked at regularly.
Getting more tickets.
If you determine that it’s time for a loved one to give up their license, but you don’t know how to broach the conversation, The Hartford has some resources to start the conversation.
Turning over the car keys is a touchy topic, and it is only natural for some to deny bad driving skills. The mature driver course will expose some warning behaviors and things to watch for, so you’ll know when it’s time to retire from driving. For a third opinion, you might also want to talk to the senior’s physician.
Together, a senior and their family - as well as outside experts such as the driving instructor and physician - can make the safest decision as to whether or not the senior will give up their license.