Tuesday, October 29, 2013


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.

It was one of the most difficult passages in our evolving child/parent relationship to date. She was angry with me in a way no mother should be at her child. Yet, I had done the thing no child should ever do to a  mother... leave her feeling worthless and helpless. When she would demand to know, "Why??" there was no reason I could give her that made perfect sense. After all, she had been driving for 65 years with a flawless record. The saving grace was that her personal physician had been the one to make the absolute decision, even though we four sisters had developed growing concerns about her abilities on the road for a few years prior. We were fortunate in that regard, as most children of aging parents are on their own when it comes to the driving dilemma.  

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.


  1. Great post. My 81 year old father still talks about how hard it was when his own father was forced to relinquish his car keys. He knows that some day we'll have that conversation and we already both dread that day whenever it comes.

  2. It's strangely becoming part of the circle of life. My parents never had to experience it. My maternal grandmother never learned to drive, and my maternal grandfather died before he could no longer drive. My paternal grandmother was a rare bird and gave up driving on her own. My paternal grandfather was only 63 when he passed, so was years away from having the keys confiscated. But, our generation... I think it's just a part of what we have to do.

  3. Great blog post Zsus! We have one parent who has stopped driving altogether simply due to the fact he can' t even walk or feed himself, and quite truthfully, he was driving up until last year and I would have been fearful to be in the car with him. Since he was my in-law, I had discussions with my husband about taking the keys for a few years, but he could never overcome the sadness of taking Dad's independence from him. Thank goodness no one ever got hurt before he stopped driving.

  4. Great post! I remember how hard it was for my mother-in-law when she had to stop driving, She felt she had completely lost her independence and she hated and resented it. I dread to think how it will affect my husband.

  5. My husband said I will have to pry the car keys out of his cold, dead hands....okay, so be it. Seriously, I hate driving at night, in bad weather, at rush hour. But I never knew you were such a bad driver. Why did we let you drive in Indiana?

  6. Cuz, I gotta tell you ... Keith about lost it in the little Laurelville Library in the Hocking HIlls. He was sitting next to me, reading this blog. At first he was laughing so hard he had tears streaming down his cheeks. Then I began reading it along with him, and by the end, I was trying to hold back true tears. Well done, as always ... and AMEN. (Keep up your blog, PLEASE!)