Taking the pedal off the metal: When should older adults stop driving?

Taking the pedal off the metal: When should older adults stop driving?
File photo Driving affords older adults independence, but some health conditions common among seniors can also make it risky.

By Cedar Dvorin

You may have gotten your driver’s license the day you turned 16. By the time you retire, you could have driven daily for more than half a century. But for some people, there comes a time in the aging process when driving becomes dangerous.

“On the whole, older drivers are safe,” Dr. Marian Betz, an expert in healthy aging at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus, said. “They tend to drive slower than younger drivers and have a lot of experience.”

But some health conditions common with aging may make it riskier to get behind the wheel. Stiffer joints and weaker muscles can make it harder to steer or brake safely. Eye diseases and some medications can cause vision problems. Hearing loss can blunt the sounds of horns or sirens. And cognitive changes, even mild ones, may impair quick decisions behind the wheel.

Deciding to stop driving can be emotionally challenging for older adults, according to Betz.

“Many people see their car as a marker of independence. Giving up the privilege of driving can feel like a real loss,” Betz said.

People often depend on cars to get them to and from the activities they enjoy, or to see the people they care about. No longer driving can lead to isolation. That’s why it’s important to have a plan for alternative transportation.

“We don’t want older adults isolated and shut in,” Betz said. “We want people to be emotionally and socially connected, as well as be able to get out and exercise.”

Feeling disconnected can lead to poorer health. Studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation are linked to higher risks for some health problems, including heart disease, depression and cognitive decline.

There are many alternatives to driving. Some areas provide free or low-cost bus or taxi services for older adults. Some communities offer a carpool service or scheduled trips to stores or the doctor. Rideshare service may also be an option. Your local Area Agency on Aging can help you find services. Call 1-800-677-1116 or go to eldercare.acl.gov to learn more.

Betz and her colleagues are currently testing an online tool to help older adults and their families make decisions about driving.

While Betz said they’re not telling people to stop driving, they hope to make people feel comfortable and empowered when they do decide to stop driving.

“That makes such a decision more likely to stick,” Betz said.

Options for getting things done without leaving the house have also boomed recently. Grocery delivery, telehealth visits and online social hours can reduce the need to drive every day.

Online options can’t — and shouldn’t — replace everything, according to Betz.

“But some of these things are good solutions for people to reduce their need to drive,” Betz said.

The City of Alexandria offers several transportation options. DASH is now free to all users. DOT is the City of Alexandria’s specialized transportation service for residents of the city and visitors who cannot use regular transit buses or rail due to their disability.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2022, all DOT trips within the City of Alexandria and to/from the Pentagon are free. Fares will still be collected for trips starting or ending outside of Alexandria. Trips less than five miles outside of city limits will be $4 each way, and trips more than five miles outside of City limits will be $6 each way. Call 703-746- 4084 for more information.

The Division of Aging and Adult Services also offers the Senior Taxi Yellow Card Program, a discounted transportation option for City of Alexandria residents age 60 and older who have a yearly household income of $48,508 or less. Eligible adults may obtain the application online or call 703-746-5999 for more information.

For additional information about aging and driving, visit the National Institutes for Health website.

The writer is a member of the Alexandria Commission on Aging’s Transportation Committee.