Unlike Rainman, I am not an excellent driver. It took me three times to get my drivers' license, and a long while after that before anyone would go anywhere in the car with me. The day I got my temps, my mother had me hop into the driver's seat, her on the passenger's side, my two sisters in the back. "OK!" she said, "Take it slow and back out of the drive into the road." I took it fast, pealing out backwards and on an angle, right across our back lawn and into the hedges. Dad didn't fare much better, as he kept repeating, "Stay on your side of the road. STAY on your side of the road. For Christ's sake, STAY ON YOUR SIDE OF THE ROAD." Nor did the high school driving instructor who made heavy use of the passenger-side break and who was always suspiciously hung-over on the mornings after he had me as a student. Therefore, it was ironic that, out of all her children, I was the one who had to take Mom's car keys away last year.
Me. The one who sobbed hysterically in the kitchen after failing my driver's test for the second time. Me. The one who sliced up the side of Dad's brand-new car while pulling it into the garage. Me. The one who waved a cheerful goodbye to my husband one morning on my way to work, only to watch his face turn to horror as I backed right into the concrete steps on the side of our house. Me. I was the daughter assigned the task of telling Mom that I could never let her drive ever again.
According to Michael Zak and Sharon Silke Carty in their article Elderly Driving Laws, in the United States, we depend on our seniors to self-regulate when it comes to determining their driving capabilities. Most do. Seniors will voluntarily quit driving at night or during bad weather. They will choose back streets rather than freeways, and stay off the roads during rush hour. However, a much smaller number willingly choose to hang up their car keys for good. After all, giving up the privilege of driving means giving up independence. It can make a suburban or rural senior a permanent shut in. The notion that "Mom and Dad will know when the time is right and will quit driving of their own accord" is charmingly naive.
For that reason, the next line of defense is the the children or caretakers of the elderly person. Sites like Aging Care offer advise on how to determine if your parent has become a high-risk driver. Sons and daughters are encouraged to get in the car now and then with Mom and Dad and let them do the driving so skills can be monitored. Pay attention to the condition of the car. Are there new bumps and scrapes? Does either parent complain of getting lost, even in familiar surroundings? Most importantly, the two questions that we are tasked with asking ourselves are, "Would I allow Mom/Dad to drive me somewhere?" and "Would I allow my grandchild to be driven alone by Mom/Dad?" If the answer is "No" to either, it's time to start the dialogue.
It is not an easy conversation. For most of us, the first issue is getting past the notion that we are never allowed to tell our parents what to do. Something learned from the age of 2 is difficult to shake 53 years later. Secondly, it's unlikely that any parent is going to be agreeable. The most common responses are, "I've been driving since I was 16!" "I haven't been in one single accident in the last 20 years." "I'm a better driver than you are!" "Do you really think I'd drive if I felt I was putting others in danger?" Also, if the parent is anything like my mother, they will have spare keys hidden throughout the house and will simply drive when they think they can get away with it... license or no license. On top of this, there is the unspoken yet very real concern that we all face. "If Mom/Dad can't drive, how will they get around? How much of a role will I have to play in getting them to the grocery store, the doctor, a card game with friends?"
None of that matters. If you have reached the point where your parent's driving is causing you concern, then you have a responsibility to do what you can to get them off the road. Unlike teenage drivers, the issue will not improve with time. According to Emily Yoffe of Slate, "Once people turn 70, their crash rates start to tick up. After 80, the acceleration is marked. Octogenarians on up have a higher collision rate per mile traveled of any age group except for teens, and their rate of fatal collisions per mile traveled is highest of all drivers." So, should you wait for Mom or Dad to actually have an accident? Should you start taking birth control pills after you get pregnant? Still, if confronting your parent is too intimidating, you can use other resources.
The AMA has encouraged family physicians to take an active part by listening to the concerns of caretakers and family members regarding a patient's driving abilities. Often, when asked by a physician to hand over the keys, the parent is more likely to accept his/her authority. If all else fails, getting in touch with your state's Department of Motor Vehicles can result in the parent receiving a letter requiring them to come in for a written and/or road test. After that, the burden is still on family members and care-givers to see to it that no further driving is done. Selling the family car is a solution that can kill two birds with one stone. One clever family did just that, then used the money to set up an account with a local limousine service so the parent could be driven where he needed to go in style. When that money ran out, the children chipped in to keep the service going.
I am not an excellent driver. However, I am cautious and have the physical and mental reflexes to react when I need to. Still, I know these will diminish with time. I want to make sure my son, the one most likely to take my keys away, understands that he has my blessing. Before she lost her right to drive, my sisters and I worried for our mother every time she went out in her car. Naturally, we worried that she might do harm to herself and never come home to us. But, our worst fear was that she would do harm to another and be the cause of immense pain to another family. What we understood, and what made our fear that much greater, was that the fault would not be hers. It would be ours.