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How to tell Mom and Dad it's time to stop driving

The good news is that the safety record for drivers age 70 and older is improving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Indeed, a recent IIHS report found the most dramatic decline in fatal crashes was among drivers age 80 and older: Their fatal crash rate from 1997 to 2008 fell by almost half. What's even more impressive is that older drivers are improving their safety records even though more people are holding onto their driver's licenses longer.

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elderly driverPart of the explanation for older drivers' improved safety record is that they police themselves. Many older drivers will voluntarily stop driving at night, in heavy traffic or when the weather is bad, says Matt Gurwell, founder and CEO of Keeping Us Safe based in Cleveland, a national organization with a mission to help keep older drivers safe.

Still, car insurance rates reflect the increased risk as one gets older: New and teen drivers start out at very high rates. Rates start to decline in your mid-20s, and middle-aged drivers reap the most benefits of their driving experience. Rates then start to creep back up in the senior years, reflecting the start of a decline in driving reflexes and abilities.

Time to turn in the car keys

Many senior citizens don't know when it's time to turn over their car keys. They may fear that losing their driving privilege will cost them their independence -- especially if they live in the suburbs or in rural areas where public transportation is limited.

"All drivers should be judged by their own abilities and not by their age," says Jodi Olshevski, gerontologist and assistant vice president of The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. "The first step I recommend is to determine if mom or dad is really an unsafe driver.”

That means going for a ride with your parents and observing their driving habits. Some warning signs for older drivers that may require action include:

  • Do you see scrapes or dents on the car, mailbox or garage doors?
  • Does the driver fail to notice traffic signs or activity on the side of the road?
  • Does he have trouble navigating left-hand turns?
  • Is he driving at inappropriate speeds? Too fast or too slow?
  • Does he/she get lost?

"The most significant sign to watch for is if they are confusing the gas pedal with the brake," Olshevski adds.

How to tell them

If you determine that your parents are no longer safe drivers, you should present them with the facts when you confront them. "You can't just say, 'Mom turned 80 and so she shouldn't be driving anymore,'" says Gurwell. "You need to be able to give her specific examples of why. You need to say, 'Mom, you didn't move over for that gentleman who was walking along the side of the road. You could have hit him.' Or, 'Mom if that car didn't see you and stop, you would have been in an accident.' The older driver is owed that."

Gurwell adds that the entire family should be in agreement about the decision to ask your parents to stop driving. "If you think dad should surrender his license and your brother doesn't, dad will see the weakness in your approach and you won't prevail."

Here are some more tips for how to speak with elderly drivers if you've determined they need to give up their driving privileges:

  • Elect a family spokesperson. Generally, family members are the best positioned to notice the issues and broach the topic, Olshevski says. It could be a spouse or an adult child. A family spokesperson should start and lead the conversation -- so the elderly driver doesn't feel like everyone is ganging up on him/her. In some cases, a professional -- like a family doctor -- could be a better choice.
  • Have a Plan B. "Giving up driving should never mean a loss of independence," Gurwell says. "It means the older drivers need to find other ways to get where they normally go." Present the elderly driver with alternatives for transportation. Tell them that friends, neighbors and family members will be willing to drive them to their destination. If public transportation is available, have schedules ready. Also, show them that they may be able to save money by taking public transportation – and don’t forget the cost of car insurance rates.
  • Express concern for others. This can be a strong motivation, Olshevski says. "For example, one approach is to say, "I know you would feel terrible if someone was hurt when you were driving. You also could tactfully mention that an accident can pose financial and legal risks as well." Be honest and forthright, but don't exaggerate or overly frighten your elderly driver.
  • Suggest a comprehensive driving evaluation. Consider consulting a trained occupational therapist. A comprehensive driving evaluation consists of a clinical evaluation and an on-the-road-test. These tests are administered by rehabilitation centers, hospitals and medical centers for veterans. They can cost from $200 to $500. Veterans may be eligible for free evaluations.

Be understanding but persistent

The conversation may be difficult and you may need to have it more than once. However, experts agree, if you show the right amount of concern, avoid being dramatic, present the facts and workable alternatives, you should be able to convince your parents that it's time to stop driving.

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