And before family members take the keys from an older relative, they should recognize the adverse consequences of “driving retirement,” Dr. Aronson wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine in an essay aptly titled, “Don’t Ruin My Life — Aging and Driving in the 21st Century.” Negative effects include increased social isolation, depression and loneliness, all correlated with poor health and a shortened life.
When forced by advancing years or health issues to stop driving, people can lose status and self-respect as well as independence and opportunities that enhance their well-being, she pointed out.
Of course, age by itself is not a reliable determinant for when people should stop driving. People in their 90s who are physically fit and drive often can be better drivers than 70-year-olds who are out of shape and drive infrequently.
To justify continuing to drive, older people may tell others they don’t go farther than the grocery store, they stay off the highway or they don’t drive at night. But such comments can be a red flag that it’s time to stop driving altogether, Dr. Aronson said. Competent driving is a skill that requires practice to maintain — “the less you drive, the less good you are at it,” she said. “Use it or lose it.”
Brenda Vrkljan, a rehabilitation specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is doing what she can to help older adults continue to drive safely by monitoring where and when they drive and how they behave behind the wheel.
“Older drivers are, all in all, very good drivers,” she told me. “But driving is not a right. It’s a privilege we have to earn; we need to be aware that things change as we get older and we don’t necessarily have the same skills. Driving involves complex maneuvers, and most people outlive their driving ability.”
A program called Candrive, which Dr. Vrkljan helped establish, is tracking the driving patterns of older adults to assess what changes might enhance safety. In an ongoing study, she and colleagues are placing cameras in aging drivers’ cars to record their unsafe missteps, like failing to check mirrors before changing lanes, not stopping soon enough or fumbling with a coffee cup. Afterward, the drivers can view the video, offering them an opportunity to bear witness to their limitations.