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Knowing when it’s time to give up the car keys

Created date

June 21st, 2011

Giving up your car can be a big blow to your sense of independence, says Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA. But not everyone has to relinquish their keys when they get older. There used to be an assumption that older adults, in part because of physical aging changes, are more likely to have traffic crashes, Nelson explains. But over the last ten years, studies have shown that despite a growing number of older drivers on the road, they are crashing less often than they did before. Researchers speculate that these findings may be due to people living healthier lives. But some people may experience physical changes that interfere with their ability to drive safely. Any health condition that causes joint stiffness or muscle weakness can make it harder to turn your head, turn the steering wheel quickly, or brake safely, says Shaveta Kotwal, M.D., a physician at Ashby Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va. Vision changes may make it hard to see clearly, and hearing problems may cause you to miss the sound of horns, sirens, or noises from your own car. Even if your response time is delayed by a few seconds, it can have major consequences on the road. Discuss concerns about your driving abilities with your doctor, Kotwal says. Some factors that affect driving might be reversible like treating a medical condition or changing a particular medication.

Get a head start

Early planning for alternative transportation is essential, especially for today s seniors, Nelson says. People tend to live seven to ten years beyond their ability to drive safely. Have conversations now with your spouse, health care provider, or adult children about how you re going to get around if and when the day comes that you can no longer safely drive, Nelson advises. You may also need to reconsider where you live, depending on your needs, he adds. People in metropolitan areas often have more transportation options than those in rural areas.

A variety of options

Many people s preferred mode of transportation is traveling in their own car, driven by someone they know and trust. But some people don t have that option or they don t want to shoulder the cost of maintaining their vehicle, Nelson explains. If you can t get rides from family or friends, you can use other means such as public transportation, shuttle services provided by community senior centers, supplemental transportation programs, and volunteer driver programs, Nelson says. You can also take taxis or use other private transportation services. Sound pricey? Remember that it costs a lot to own a car. The average American household spends about 20% of its income on transportation, says Katherine Freund, president and executive director of ITNAmerica, a national nonprofit transportation network for the aging population. This includes not only automobile payments, but fuel, maintenance, insurance, parking fees, and highway tolls. Today s seniors have more options than they did in previous years because of a growing need for transportation. ITNAmerica is the first national approach to transportation for the aging population, Freund says. We have affiliates all across the U.S. We use private automobiles and we re available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for any purpose even in inclement weather. The Elder Locator, a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, can connect you to many services for older adults and their families including transportation assistance. Call 1-800-677-1116, or go to

Choose your ride

There are many things to consider, Nelson says. Think about where you need to go, how best to get there and back, what you might have to carry, travel times, and possible safety issues. If you are going to use public transportation, know the system well in advance of having to use it. Familiarize yourself with costs, transfers, and schedules, Nelson advises.

A driving checkup

AAA and AARP offer driver safety courses ( that may qualify you for insurance discounts in some states. Your local area agency on aging or your insurance company may also offer safety courses. Hi-tech options are also available. CarCheckup ( is a plug-in monitor that can measure hard breaking, accelerating, distance traveled, top speed, and time spent at various speeds. Although originally designed for teens, it is becoming increasingly useful for older drivers. Is it time to give updriving? According to AAA, a driver s chronological age is not a good predictor of driving ability. Here are a few signs that it may be time to relinquish your keys:
  • ' Having a series of minor accidents or near misses
  • ' Having wandering thoughts or being unable to concentrate
  • ' Being unable to read ordinary road signs
  • ' Getting lost on familiar roads
  • ' Having other drivers honk at you frequently
  • ' Being spoken to about your driving by police, family, and friends
More information and resources AAA 407-444-7000 AARP 1-888-687-2277 American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators 703-522-4200 ITNAmerica 207-857-9001