Volume 1, Number 3
|Table of Contents|
|Driving and the Older Adult|
The sixty-five and older age group is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. By 2020, more than 40 million older adults will be licensed drivers. 1 Encouraging an older adult, particularly a client, that it may be time to more carefully regulate their driving, or perhaps quite driving altogether can be a daunting task.
Media stories regarding tragic accidents involving an older adult driver are sobering. However, it appears that older adult drivers may be more of a danger to themselves on the road than to others. Drivers over the age of sixty-five have higher per mile crash death rates than all other drivers other than teen drivers. 2 Drivers over age 65 who are injured in motor vehicle crashes are more likely than younger drivers to die from their injuries. 3 For older drivers, the rate of fatalities increases significantly after age 70. 4 Yet, concerns regarding an older adult’s diminished driving capabilities remain.
Driving is oftentimes synonymous with independence and talking with clients and their loved ones about driving issues is difficult. Such conversations must remain positive and must be sensitive to the fact that if an older relative stops driving he or she may feel isolated, depressed, or a burden to those relatives who will take on driving or chauffeuring duties.
One of the first tasks that needs to be completed before a conversation is initiated is an objective assessment of the older adult’s driving capabilities. Have there been recent traffic tickets or accidents? Are other warning signs present such as a general failure to obey the rules of the road (turning without signaling, ignoring stop signs or red lights)? Does the older adult have trouble seeing? Is the older adult’s reaction time slowed or does he or she drive too fast or too slow for the conditions? Does the older adult have an illness such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease that may impair thinking (judgment) ability; or does the older adult take medications that, either alone or in conjunction with one another, may make driving more dangerous? If such behaviors or conditions are present, then it might be time to have a serious discussion with the older driver about driver safety.
Surprisingly, some older drivers are likely to agree that their driving needs some assessment. The AARP offers a Driver Safety Program to all motorists age 50 or older, which was specially designed for the older motorists. ( http://www.aarp.org/life/drive/). While not necessarily dedicated to older drivers, many states also offer driver impairment programs geared toward strengthening driving abilities.
If an impaired older adult cannot be persuaded to give up driving or to modify or restrict their driving in order to be a safe driver, then often state drivers licensing authorities must be contacted as a last resort to keep the roadways safe. Most states have procedures to report unsafe or otherwise impaired drivers. While the programs are not aged based, they may be used to remove an unsafe older driver from the roadways. 5
In Indiana, for example, if the Bureau of Motor Vehicles has any information that has come to its attention during an application for or renewal of a license “that the applicant does not apparently possess the physical, mental, or other qualifications to operate a motor vehicle in a manner that does not jeopardize the safety of individuals or property” 6 then the bureau may make an examination of the driver’s license applicant or renewal applicant. Information includes the apparent physical or mental condition of the license or renewal applicant. This provision in Indiana law could be invoked in instances in which an older adult has difficulty passing the eyesight requirement for a driver’s license. This however, does not catch those already licensed drivers who can automatically renew their driver’s license over the telephone or through the Internet (a simple task in our technologically advanced age).
Indiana does have a mechanism for the examination of allegedly unsafe licensed drivers. Similar to the licensing/renewal provision, the Bureau may also require an already licensed operator to submit to an examination if the Bureau has good cause to believe that the driver is incompetent or otherwise not qualified to hold a driver’s license. 7 In this scenario, the driver must submit to an examination upon at least 5 days written notice. Bureau remedies after an unsuccessful examination include suspension or revocation of the driver’s license or the issuance of a license subject “to restrictions considered necessary in the interest of public safety.” 8 Failure to submit to an examination requested by the Bureau can result in suspension or revocation of driving privileges. 9 Procedures to appeal any decision by the bureau of motor vehicles are in place. 10
Driving on a suspended, revoked, or canceled license can be risky business. Not only is the driver subject to state traffic and criminal law (and its ramifications) for driving on a suspended or revoked license, but insurance may not cover damages caused by a person who is knowingly driving on a suspended or revoked license. Personal liability for damages (or injury or death) could be very real.
Like many other parts of an elder law practice, rather than having an immediate “legal” solution to give to our clients and their families regarding an older adult’s continued driving, the elder law attorney must be willing to counsel clients and their families about what to look for with respect to impaired driving, steps to take to eliminate unacceptable risk, and the ramifications of impaired driving.
4United States Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Older Driver Safety Facts and Statistics, (visited March 7, 2005) < www.safety.fhwa.dot.gov/older_driver/older_facts.html>.
5If statistics were available, it would be very interesting to see how may drivers reported under impaired driver reporting policies were actually older adult drivers and what the suspensionrevocation rates are for such drivers with reference to other drivers reported as impaired.