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Outliving Our Driving Years: Giving Up the Keys without Losing Independence

posted on Thu, Dec 22 2011 10:58 am by Sage Graham

Senior Driving Risks

News reports about car accidents caused by senior drivers are sobering. These drivers often cause great damage, or even death, not out of malice or negligence, but rather because they have simply lost the ability to drive. Unfortunately, these stories are not isolated events. Research supports the notion that older drivers are a risky driving demographic. Studies show that seniors are involved in more fatal car accidents than any other driving age group. These accidents are attributed to impairments associated with aging, such as vision problems, cognitive declines and increased use of medications.

While senior driving poses a public health risk, driving cessation presents its own set of health risks for the elderly. For many seniors, especially those in rural areas, driving is the only way to connect to the community and access essential resources. The isolation and dependence associated with losing the right to drive have adverse public health consequences for seniors, such as depression, low quality of life and loss of self-identity. Understandably, seniors believe driving is crucial to their quality of life and are reluctant to stop driving. 

States have implemented some restrictions on seniors’ rights to drive in order to protect seniors and others on the road. For example, most states have accelerated renewal cycles for older drivers, require seniors to renew in person or give vision tests at each renewal. Many states also have anonymous reporting procedures in which a physician or family member can report a risky driver to the motor vehicles administration.

Nevertheless, current procedures are inadequate to address the issue of senior driving. As our nation’s aging population climbs and Americans live well into their 70s, senior driving is a public health issue that states can no longer afford to ignore. Below is a spectrum of legislative changes that states could choose to enact. The chart demonstrates the complexity of this issue.

Proposed Policy     Argument For                    Argument Against

No Restrictions

Seniors have shown that they are able to self-restrict their driving and adapt to their physical impairments.

Senior drivers contribute significantly to driving fatalities.  In addition, seniors are unable to self-regulate or adapt to differing levels of impairment.

Testing at License Renewal (for example, vision tests and reaction time tests)

Age is not a good indicator of
a senior's ability to drive so states should only restrict seniors who develop an impairment related to driving.

Seniors' physical and mental abilities deteriorate rapidly, so periodic tests will be inadequate.

Physician Reporting

A physician is in the best position to measure a senior's current and future ability to drive.

Physician reporting may create hostility between the patient and physician, and result in patient distrust.

Restrict Driving Based
on Age

Age is the only measure available to assess a person's physical reaction time, vision and decision-making ability.

Age is not a good indicator of an individual's ability to drive. Seniors vary greatly in their functional decline and ability to compensate for those declines.

Is it possible to reform the law to prevent risky driving behavior while protecting the independence and health of senior drivers? Achieving this goal requires that states carefully develop policy that only restricts senior drivers who are at risk of causing accidents. States should also provide community support to those who are no longer able to drive and implement programs to help seniors adapt their driving skills to their changing abilities. In the meantime, family members should take a proactive role in encouraging seniors who have lost the ability to drive to give up their keys. Approaching seniors about this issue is difficult, and online resources are available to educate family members on alternative transportation solutions (find here) and on ways to persuade senior drivers to voluntarily stop driving (find here).

This blog was prepared by Sage Graham, student attorney in the Public Health Law Clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, supervised by Kathleen Hoke Dachille, director, and Kerri Lowrey, senior staff attorney, of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

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