Giving Up The Car Keys

By Diane Schlindwein

November 20, 2009 4 min read

Anyone who ever has had to ask a parent or grandparent to give up the car keys understands the anguish that comes with it. That's because for most individuals, driving represents a person's independence -- and sometimes even his or her dignity.

According to a recent news release from the National Safety Commission, there is no set age at which a person is no longer able to drive. Some drivers maintain their vision, reflexes and physical abilities well into their 80s or even their 90s; others -- who may have illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes -- may have to give up driving in their 50s.

"That's right. We have 55-year-olds who should not be driving, but then we have 92-year-olds who do just fine," says Barb Campbell, a representative of the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

At IPMR, trained individuals check out drivers' visual acuity, motor-free visual perception and motor reaction times. Based on those standardized scores, the testers can designate evaluation recommendations.

AARP says older drivers or their family members should watch for warning signs that indicate it is time to limit or give up driving. Those include feeling fearful or nervous while driving, having difficulty staying in a travel lane, getting lost, frequent "close calls" in traffic, slower response times, noticing friends have become reluctant passengers, problems with vision, frequent traffic tickets or warnings, and even having a hard time turning around to check over the shoulder while backing up or changing lanes.

No matter the reason you or someone you care about decides to stop driving, it's important not to overlook the emotional reactions of the person who must give up the keys. Connie Matthiessen, a senior editor who regularly writes on senior issues for, says older individuals who give up driving have concerns about loss of control and autonomy and a fear of increased social isolation.

"These aren't irrational fears, but very real concerns for seniors who can no longer drive," she says. It's important to put yourself in their place and imagine how you would manage if, for example, you couldn't use your car for the next week. How would you buy groceries, visit friends, get to your doctors' appointments?

"Now imagine being told you could never drive again," Matthiessen says. "Understanding your loved one's experience will help you support your loved one as he or she makes this difficult transition and aid you in helping your loved one tap into resources that will make giving up driving easier."

Children and grandchildren of an unsafe driver can't always rely on the state to dictate who drives and who doesn't. States vary widely on how they test older drivers. No state will revoke a driver's license based solely on a driver's age, but some states put restrictions on license renewals for elderly drivers. Other states do not differentiate based on age, and a few states actually have fewer requirements for older drivers.

Moreover, passing a road test doesn't necessarily mean a person should keep driving for the next several years. A minor stroke or a change in a person's medical condition can change his or her ability to drive almost overnight.

The Department of Motor Vehicles, Highway Safety Division or Transportation Department in your state has an office where family members or physicians can make reports about unsafe drivers. To find more information about rules for elderly drivers in your state, go to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Web site (

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