Among drivers, those who are highest in years have a pretty bad rap. Even a consistently safe driver is often suddenly assumed to be a threat to others on the road upon passing 75. Is this fair, or an ageist prejudice that deserves some pushback?
While it’s true that the likelihood of being involved in a deadly crash increases after 75, this is largely because older drivers themselves are at a higher risk of injury or death as they grow more physically fragile. According to AAA, seniors’ fatality rates in crashes are 17 times higher than those of drivers between the ages of 25 and 64.
This central misunderstanding about older drivers leads to other misconceptions, which together have created an unnecessary stigma for elderly individuals as soon as they sit behind the wheel. Following are five common myths and misconceptions about elderly drivers that deserve scrutiny:
- “There is a specific age when older individuals should no longer be able to drive.”
This statement is built on the assumption that there is a specific age when somebody becomes “old,” as well as on the assumption that only older people can be bad drivers. As life expectancy for many demographic groups continues to climb, the threshold of what constitutes “old” in our culture is shifting.
Many much older individuals are perfectly fit to drive, while other individuals in their sixties or seventies might not be able to. Even in their eighties or nineties, some individuals possess strong cognitive abilities, are aware of their surroundings and potential dangers on the road and can perform the physical tasks of driving a car with no issue. For older drivers–as for any group of drivers– fitness behind the wheel should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
2. “You can’t tell when an older person is unfit to drive until an accident happens.”
The spark for many family conversations about whether their older parent or relative should be allowed to drive is usually after that relative gets into an accident or a mishap on the road. Some family members might argue that accidents happen and that the relative’s older age had nothing to do with it, while others might say that keeping that older individual on the road will lead to more harm.
Before that accident happens and those conversations take place, people can help determine if their older parent or relative is fit to drive by riding with them. Passengers can take note of the older driver’s behavior, awareness and attention levels throughout their ride. If they notice red flags like the driver failing to use their turn signal or driving too fast or too slow in certain areas, these passengers can make recommendations to help their loved one drive more safely. But if they note too many bad behaviors–especially those that point to a lack of awareness or late response times– the passenger can make a much more stronger case in declaring that their loved one should no longer be behind the wheel.
3. “When an older or elderly person is no longer able to drive, they lose all independence.”
Typically, people drive to do one of three things: to go somewhere, to get something,, or simply to enjoy being on the road. If an older person is no longer able to drive, the biggest thing that they would lose out on is that joy of steering their own car on the road. But they still have several other options to maintain their independence, even if driving a car is no longer involved in their day-to-day lives.
From ride-sharing platforms like Uber and Lyft, to more grocery and meal home delivery options like Meals on Wheels or Amazon Fresh, there are several new methods that allow older individuals to accomplish day-to-day tasks and maintain the ability to make their own choices. Additionally, there are several non-profit programs, care homes, and other facilities and organizations that provide wide transportation options for older people. They can get from their homes to other locations in their cities or neighborhoods using a group bus or even a more private van or car being driven by another individual. More importantly, these services still provide older individuals a choice in where they go, helping them to keep their independence.
4. “There’s nothing an older person can do to stay healthy enough to drive.”
Think about what we actually do when we’re driving. We’re actively evaluating things we see on the road and making decisions. For an older person to be able to drive, they need to possess the necessary cognitive and physical abilities to perform the task. If older individuals have a visual or hearing impairment, they sadly might not be able to continue driving. But for older individuals who are still healthy and alert, they can keep and strengthen their abilities through regular physical and mental exercise. Regular walks, yoga, and other forms of mild but still beneficial exercise have allowed older individuals to stay physically and mentally healthy. Consistent mental activity, whether it be through reading, conversations with friends, or anything else that keeps them thinking and engaged, can also help older individuals maintain the physical and mental aptitude they need to drive a car.
5. “There’s no proper way to handle elderly drivers on the road”
You know how teenagers in driver’s ed often are often on the road in those cars that have big, “Driving Student” bumper stickers? When other drivers see those stickers, they know that the younger driver is probably going to make some mistakes, and they’re likely to be more accepting and forgiving as a result.
We need to bring the same compassion to a frustrating situation that involves an older driver. Honking horns solely out of frustration is only likely to startle the driver and perhaps put him or her, as well as others on the road, at risk. If safety calls for it, the horn should be used, but if not, our roads will be safest when we extend extra levels of courtesy to older drivers–and ensure that the elderly people in our own lives are driving only as long as they’re cognitively and physically able.