Tips for dealing with older drivers
Stephen Reynolds was beyond exasperated. For two years, he had been trying to get his elderly mom to stop driving, ever since that day when a friend called from South Carolina saying she had had several minor crashes.
But Fontella Gates ignored her son and the many others who told her it was past
time to quit driving. Living across country from his mom made Reynolds' effort a
``It was so difficult,'' said Reynolds, a 58-year-old divorce and real estate
mediator from Santa Cruz. ``With older people, it's almost easier taking their
money than taking away their car keys.''
Older drivers and their loved ones frequently struggle with
the decision to stop driving. Many seniors realize their driving skills have
dulled but fear losing independence. Their adult children worry that Mom or Dad
could be killed, injured, or hurt someone else in a crash.
More states are limiting old drivers or requiring them to take more frequent
exams, but California's attempts to toughen on-the-road testing requirements
have stalled -- despite the 2003 tragedy in Santa Monica when an 86-year-old
driver accidentally plowed into a crowded street market, killing 10 people.
Today, it almost always falls on adult children to persuade a parent to give up
``This is a huge issue that we've just only seen the leading edge of,'' said
Sean Comey of the AAA of Northern California, which offers a program that allows
older drivers to test their motoring skills. ``And it's only going to become
much more prevalent in the future. You just have to look at the demographics.''
People over 65 are the fastest-growing age group in the United States, and by
2020 there will be more than 40 million licensed drivers 65 and older.
California has 2.7 million drivers over the age of 65, a number that will swell
to 7 million by 2040.
Older drivers may not react to another driver suddenly changing into their lane.
They may have trouble reading street signs at night. They are more cautious and
may impede traffic by driving slower.
And they can be scared.
A study by the auto club showed that next to financial security and the cost of
health care, seniors are most concerned about their ability to get around as
they age. Nine of 10 over the age of 65 said they currently drive themselves on
a daily basis.
But take away the keys? How?
Psychologists and experts recommend a soft approach. Try talking gently at
first. If necessary, involve an outsider, such as a driving instructor or
doctor. Offer alternatives; have friends drive if possible. Be firm but not
The soft approach worked with Ethel Stephens, 91, of San Juan Bautista. After
she suffered a heart attack two years ago, her three kids living in the Midwest
coaxed her to stop driving even though she had no accidents on her record.
It took a year of talking, but finally she knew. They were right.
``They gave me time to decide to give up driving,'' said Stephens. ``Do I miss
it? Are you kidding? Of course; you really lose your independence.
``I think I could still drive, but when people get as old as me maybe they
shouldn't be driving anymore. It didn't do any good to get angry. You might as
well let it go.
``Besides, there are too many cars on the road to run into.''
Most seniors interviewed for this story expressed hope that they would be
willing to stop driving when they felt their behind-the-wheel skills had
diminished. And they supported tougher tests for older Californians, who now are
required to take only an eye and written test after turning 70.
But they also say age is not a precise predictor of when they should curtail
their driving, and take umbrage at the driving habits of younger drivers who
they see on cell phones, eating, applying makeup or monkeying with the radio or
a CD while heading down the freeway or a busy city street.
``How many seniors are red-light runners?'' asked Howard Peterson, 82, a former
truck driver who lives in San Jose. ``How many senior citizens are involved in
road rage? How many tailgate? How many senior drivers greet you with a middle
Federal law requires that local agencies offer service to the disabled and
elderly who are unable to ride transit. But to cut costs, the Valley
Transportation Authority is urging older people to take a bus or train.
That can be a formidable challenge for a 79-year-old who may have never ridden a
``Many seniors live two to three blocks from a bus stop,'' said Bob Jaffee,
co-chair of Santa Clara County's Council on Aging. ``They may want to go to a
show, but would you risk walking three blocks and feeling in danger of being
mugged? That's one reason many want to keep driving.''
Reynolds' mother certainly wanted to keep driving.
After getting the phone call, Reynolds flew back to South Carolina and rode with
his mom over three days to witness her driving. It was, he said, three days of
``fear and fright.''
When he suggested that she consider giving up driving, she had an excuse or
denial for every situation.
The next year, Gates came to California to visit her son, who hired a driving
instructor to test her diminishing road skills.
After an hour on the road, the instructor turned to Gates and said, ``Ma'am, if
I had been giving you a test for the DMV, I would have failed you in the first
Gates kept driving, telling her son, ``He was evaluating me for driving in
California, and I drive in South Carolina.''
Reynolds' next step: arranging for her car in South Carolina to be disabled. But
his plucky mom called AAA, had her Buick LaSabre towed and repaired.
Next, he had her take a driving test at a South Carolina DMV.
She failed, and her license was revoked. She kept driving while appealing the
loss of her license.
Final step: While on a family vacation to Florida, Reynolds sold his mom's car.
``It was tough and very frustrating,'' the son said. ``It strained the
relationship between me and my mother. What was I going to do -- scream at her?
I felt like it sometimes, but that would not have helped.''
Gates died two years ago at 89. Reynolds hopes his mother's story is extreme,
but he fears it may not be.
``I've heard enough other similar stories to believe that there are far too many
senior drivers out there, firmly believing they are good drivers, who are in
fact a danger to themselves and others,'' he said.