• U.S.

Health: Too Old to Drive?

2 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

The carnage in California was bad enough last week after motorist Russell Weller, 86, lost control of his 1992 Buick at a Santa Monica farmers’ market, injuring 40 people and killing 10. But the tragedy also raised larger questions. With 16% of all drivers 65 or older and with that figure expected to rise to 25% by 2030, families are worrying anew about when it’s safe for seniors to drive and when it’s time to take away the keys.

No one denies that the skills necessary for good driving decline with age, even if they decline at different rates for different people. One way to make sure that older family members are not road hazards is to ride with or follow the driver during an outing. Drifting from lane to lane, running stop lights, bumping curbs and failing to signal are signs that reaction time, visual acuity and other skills are declining. A little sleuthing, such as checking the car for dents, can help too.

Concerned seniors should ask themselves some tough questions: Do traffic distractions at intersections confuse me? Does glare bother me? Do I get lost a lot? Am I taking any medications that could affect my alertness? For drivers over 55, the Automobile Association of America offers a quiz on the Web (at aaafoundation.org/quizzes and over the phone (407-444-7913). Senior drivers.org offers an even more user-friendly site. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety makes literature available (call 713-247-1500).

In some cases, a few modifications to a car may temporarily improve things. Wider mirrors can expand field of vision. Pedal extensions can help shorter drivers accelerate and brake without leaning too close to the steering wheel. A booster cushion on the seat can provide them with a clearer view.

Ultimately, however, it may be the responsibility of family members to confiscate the keys–perhaps with the help of a doctor. If necessary, you can secretly call the police department and ask an officer to dissuade your elderly relative from taking to the road, at least for that day. In some states you or a doctor can contact the department of motor vehicles and request a re-examination of an older driver–which can lead to license suspension or even revocation. Loss of mobility is a terrible thing for seniors, but loss of control behind the wheel is even worse.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com