How to Talk With Seniors About Their Driving

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What Signs Should I Look Out For?

HealthLink BC found that older adults (aged 70+) are more at risk for being involved in a vehicle accident than any other age group, except new drivers under the age of 25. More importantly, they are also at a much higher risk of severe injury resulting from these accidents. 

For many, driving was the first step they took towards having freedom in life. As the decision to quit driving can feel like a significant loss of independence, it makes having the conversation to quit even more difficult to navigate.  

While talking to anyone about their driving abilities can be complicated, it can be even more uncomfortable to do so when it’s a loved one - such as your parents or grandparents.  

However, it is important to recognize the changes that come with aging (such as congenital, visual, and physical changes) that can impact a senior’s ability to drive safely. While there is no universal cut-off age for when a senior should quit driving, you may decide to have a conversation on their safety if you’ve noticed any of these warning signs, including: 

  • Are other drivers honking at them more frequently?
  • Are they receiving more traffic tickets than usual?
  • Are they missing or having difficulty seeing traffic lights, stop signs, and pedestrians?
  • Do they seem anxious about their driving skills, and are they asking the passenger for help more often?
  • Are their loved ones more reluctant to get into a car with them?
  • Are they getting lost more often, even in areas familiar to them?
  • Have you been noticing an increase of minor scratches/dents that weren’t on their car before?
  • Do they get confused between the brake and gas pedal?
  • Are they taking medications that may impair their driving?
  • Are they facing any recent memory loss?
  • Are they often driving below or above the speed limit?

How to approach the conversation

If you notice any of these new patterns with an aging senior in your life, it may be time to have a conversation regarding their safety and driving.  

Come Prepared with Research

The first step to take before having a conversation regarding their driving is making sure that your concerns are fact-based, and not coming from a place of fear or anxiety. You can begin your evaluation by simply getting in the car with them to see if you notice any unsafe driving behaviours or patterns. Ensure that you are making note of these patterns to yourself, and not bringing it up on the road while the senior is driving.  

Set the Conversation for a Future Date

It may be helpful to first begin by letting them know you would like to have the conversation in advance so that it does not come off as a shock to them. Highlight that the conversation will simply be a discussion surrounding their safety and their feelings on driving as of recently.  

Come From a Place of Understanding and Empathy

It’s important to make sure when addressing this topic that you’re coming from a place of empathy and understanding, as giving up driving can make seniors feel a loss of control - both over their independence and health. Responding with empathy involves acknowledging their point of view, and avoiding giving lectures or unwarranted advice. Be cautious in making sure that you’re also avoiding making generalizations on their driving just because they are an older adult.  

Opening up the conversation with questions surrounding how comfortable they’ve felt with driving recently, rather than using harsh statements on why they’re in danger, may also make them feel more willing to engage in the conversation without feeling attacked. Place emphasis on the fact that your concern is their safety, and that you would like for them to remain as independent as possible. 

Remain Objective

While empathy and good listening skills are key to navigating a difficult conversation on safety with driving, it is also vital to make sure you can remain objective, as complicated emotions may arise. When having these discussions and actively listening to where they’re coming from, it's important to make sure you’re still bringing light to the patterns you’ve picked up on and the facts (such as their medical condition) to highlight why you’ve decided to open up the conversation in the first place.  

Find Out the Root of the Problem

During your discussion, speak to them on what exactly they feel is impairing their driving, and if they believe it to be due to a medical condition. It’s possible that the difficulties they’ve been having could be solved by speaking to their primary doctor or optometrist to get a change of medication or glasses.  

Discuss Alternatives

If you have come to the unanimous decision that it is ultimately unsafe for them to drive, you can discuss alternative methods of transportation to use. You may choose to speak to other family members who are willing to take turns taking them to any necessary appointments or errands. Depending on how accessible it is to where you live, public transportation is also a great option that many seniors use to get around if they are independent enough to safely use it on their own. Taxis and rideshare apps such as Uber and Lyft are also great options that can be easily accessed through their phones.  

 If you (and the senior you are caring for) believe that they are still a safe driver only facing minor difficulties with driving, they may also choose to simply avoid the roads in risky situations such as bad weather conditions, heavy traffic, and during the night. 

What Steps Do I Take if They Refuse To Give Up Driving, Even When It’s Unsafe?

If you’re dealing with a loved one who refuses to give up on driving and you believe that they may be putting themselves or others on the road at risk, it may be time to involve their primary doctor in the discussion. In a poll conducted on Canadian seniors, 94% of respondents noted that they would give up driving if it were advised by their medical professional. Ensure that this is not something you do without their permission and that you always let them know that you will be contacting their doctor beforehand.   

 You may also suggest that they take a driving assessment through a doctor, nurse, or social worker to help conduct an in-depth assessment to see if the senior in your life is still fit to drive. In Canada, this is required for seniors aged 80 and up to ensure the safety of seniors and others on the road.