Giving up the keys

It’s about ability, not age: older adults and driving 

By Ellen Phipps, Aging Together

Charles Reed of Warrenton had considered himself a safe driver since he was a teenager. In nearly 60 years, he had received only one parking ticket and a warning from a police officer for speeding. Since his 75th birthday, Charlie’s daughter, Cheryl, noticed signs that he may be having more difficulty while behind the wheel. She had observed that he had difficulty judging stopping distances and turning to see when reversing. Cheryl wasn’t sure if what she noticed was a “red flag” or not, and she wondered how to approach the topic with her father. 

Many people buy into the stereotype that older senior adults are a hazard and should be off the road. The truth is there is no “magic age” at which people should stop driving. It really depends on many factors, and is a very difficult decision to make. Cheryl researched and learned there was much to be considered about an older adult’s situation before assuming they should give up the keys altogether. 

Mary Ann Perrin of Orlean, on the other hand, noticed her 86 year old mother-in-law’s driving habits while following her home one day. She drove too fast on the side roads, didn’t stay in her lane, and rode the brakes constantly. She had recently been in a fender bender in a parking lot, and had started to get lost on familiar roads. Clearly, it was time for her to stop driving, and the family, knowing her independence and temper, dreaded broaching the subject. 

While you’re still driving: Staying safe behind the wheel

The National Institute on Aging offers some advice on maintaining your ability to drive. As we age, arthritis can make it harder to turn your head to look back, turn the steering wheel, or brake safely. Driving a car with an automatic transmission, power steering, and power brakes can make it easier and safer for you to continue driving. 

Failing eyesight is normal as we age. At night, you may have trouble seeing things clearly. See your doctor every year to be sure your lens prescriptions are accurate. 

Hearing loss is another problem that may happen as we age, making it harder to notice horns and sirens, which can be very dangerous. See your doctor often to see if there are things that might help. 

Evaluating your Driving 

Ask yourself:
Do other drivers often honk at me?
Have I had some accidents, even if they were only “fender benders”?
Do I get lost, even on roads I know?
Do I have trouble staying in my lane?
Do I have trouble moving my foot between the gas and the brake pedals, or do I sometimes confuse the two?
Have I been pulled over by a police officer about my driving?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions for yourself or a loved one, it may be time to talk with your doctor about driving or take a driving assessment, which is available online at The key is that we all age differently and there is no way to set one age when everyone should stop driving. It does however make sense that we stay aware of how changes could affect one’s ability to drive.

When it’s time to stop driving

If you have an elderly family member who shouldn’t drive anymore, how do you stop them? There are different tactics to take, some involving a serious conversation, and some a little more complicated. Either way, families must be prepared for the changes that will occur when the senior stops driving: the family will have to pitch in a lot more for grocery and medical trips, and help to combat the isolation and depression that will result from a senior staying home more. 

Sylvia McDevitt of the Piedmont Dispute Resolution Center admits this is a difficult conversation to have with a parent. She recommends letting the senior’s primary care physician take the lead, and advises family members to come into the conversation with love and understanding. Not driving will have a huge effect on the senior’s life, so you need to go in with empathy for them.

In some cases, the DMV may not renew a senior’s driver’s license due to a failed vision test or a failed assessment of the senior’s health and ability to drive safely. Assessments, which are completely confidential, can be requested by physicians, police, judges, or family members concerned with driving safety. 

In Mary Ann’s case, her mother in law flatly refused to give up her car, and attempts at conversation were met with anger. The family considered other measures, such as taking the keys, taking the car itself, or even disconnecting the battery so the car wouldn’t start. In the end the subject was resolved when her mother in law stopped driving on her own because she became so forgetful that she kept getting lost.   

Assessing the driving safety of a senior family member is one of the most difficult things relatives have to do as their parents age. As emotionally charged as the situation is, the thing to remember is that it’s all about the safety of the driver himself as well as others on the road. 

Often older adults are worried they will lose their independence if they stop driving, but many are not aware of all the alternate ways to get around and continue life as usual. See the following list of local transportation resources for our region.

Alternative Transportation Options

Foothills Area Mobility System (FAMS): 540-829-5300,

Care-A-Van Program: 540-829-5300,

VolTran: 540-829-5300 or

Circuit Rider: 540-341-3464 or

Demand-Response Transportation Service: 540-825-2456 or 540-341-3464

Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles

804-367-6203 or

Driving Aptitude Test

If you’re unsure about your ability to drive, or if you have an elderly family member that may not be safe on the road, Virginia GrandDriver’s website offers self-assessments of driving abilities for maximum safety on the road. 


800-552-3402 or


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