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When it's time for Grandma to stop driving

As drivers get older, their driving skills decline. But getting the elderly off the road — whether they're aging parents or ourselves — is no easy task. Harriet Baskas has some well-mannered advice.
This screengrab from the film “Taking the Wheel” shows actress Patience Cleveland behind the wheel. The film focuses on “the complicated relationship between an obstinate 90-year-old woman who refuses to give up driving, and her well-intentioned son who will stop at nothing to get her off the road,” the film's Web site says.
This screengrab from the film “Taking the Wheel” shows actress Patience Cleveland behind the wheel. The film focuses on “the complicated relationship between an obstinate 90-year-old woman who refuses to give up driving, and her well-intentioned son who will stop at nothing to get her off the road,” the film's Web site says.Courtesy Shorts International/iTunes

Remember Mr. Magoo? He’s the elderly, extremely nearsighted cartoon character who ends up in a heap of trouble every time he drives his car.

I’m pretty sure his sister lives in my neighborhood.

More than once, this elderly woman has driven her vintage Skylark straight into and over the traffic circle on my street. Each time, she’s emerged from her bunged-up car cursing about how “that darn thing ran in front of the car — again!”

The first time she did that, I laughed. Then I took a look at the statistics for older drivers and talked with some experts in the field. Now I’m alarmed. Not just about Ms. Magoo, but about the growing number of elderly drivers on the road and the millions of older snowbirds from up north loading up their cars and RVs right about now and starting their annual migration south.

It’s not just the Magoos
As far as I know, neither my neighborhood Magoo nor the one from cartoon-land has hurt anyone with their car. That wasn’t the case back in 2003 when an 86 year-old man confused the gas pedal for the brake and drove his Buick into a crowded farmers’ market in Santa Monica, Calif. That day, George Russell Weller killed 10 people and injured about 70 more. He also brought national attention to a growing problem that even the most well-mannered travelers have trouble confronting.

What’s the problem?
According to the Federal Highway Administration, mile for mile, the elderly have higher crash rates than any other driving group except teenagers. It’s a statistic that will only get worse as baby boomers age: in 2006, 15 percent of all licensed drivers were 65 and older. By the time 2030 rolls around, older drivers will make up 25 percent of all motorists. Additionally, folks are living — and keeping their driving licenses — longer than ever before. And because boomers are known for being stubborn, getting older drivers to pull off the road will surely become more of a challenge.

While age alone doesn't automatically make a bad driver, we know our cognitive functions, vision, hearing and other physical abilities decline with age. It stands to reason that driving skills will decline, too. Yet, giving up a car and the independence that comes along with it is a top concern among most senior citizens.

What can you do?
Have you tried convincing an aging parent, relative or friend to stop driving? It’s never easy.

Some people try reasoning. Others try joking. But when these approaches don’t work, many people resort to alternative strategies. Casey Quinlan found that “getting my Parkinson’s-afflicted father to surrender his car keys was a two-year battle that was only won after we literally took the keys and sold the car ... It’s something of a miracle that he didn’t have an injury-causing accident in that time.”

Others seek assistance from doctors and other authorities. “When I worked with a police department we had frantic family members come in to request an officer come out and take the keys,” Bonnie Russell says. “At that point you contact DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles], which can ask the person to come in for a test because a ‘motorist’ took down their license number and reported them.”

After Jodi R.R. Smith’s grandmother had three car accidents, family members “borrowed” the car while theirs was in the shop. “They took her car and basically never gave it back,” says Smith. “Instead my dad drives her anywhere she wants to go.”

Smith, the author of the etiquette book “From Clueless to Class Act,” also offers these suggestions for dealing with an older driver whose safe driving days are numbered:

Strategize: Think about what the car represents to them. Is this their freedom, their youth, their independence, their status?

Anticipate reactions and objections: Have answers ready. If they say “How will I get my groceries?,” you might say, “I’ll take you shopping every week. It will be fun. We’ll have lunch together first and then go for groceries.” If they say, “I am not old!,” you can say, “Of course you are not old and you are a great driver. I’m worried about the other drivers. With all the rushing and the road rage, I’m petrified one of those loonies will crash into you!”

Campaign: Cut out or print out articles about crashes from the paper; “Did you see this one?  I am so glad it wasn’t you!”

Hollywood to the rescue
Unfortunately, no amount of reasoning, pleading, cajoling or straight talk could convince David Ackerman’s grandma to pull over. “She lived in Milwaukee and drove until she was about 92, but she was always a bad driver,” says Ackerman. “Starting around the time grandma was 80 years old, my father in California would get letters from neighbors saying what a menace grandma was on the road. We all tried to get her stop driving and she thought that my dad, her doctor, and the police, were all conspiring against her. We were! But in the nicest way possible.”

Finally Ackerman, a psychotherapist and filmmaker, picked up a camera and made a “love letter” to his grandmother. “I didn’t want her to not be around anymore.” The result is “,” a 10-minute film starring Monty Python-alum John Cleese. Ackerman says the funny, award-winning film not only got his grandmother to start talking to him again, it convinced her to stop driving. “I wish someone else would have made this film or something like it so that I could have shown it to my grandmother when we first had our falling out.”

Watch a film, take a test, play a game, obey the law
“Giving up the keys to the car is one of the more difficult decisions we will have to face as we watch our parents age and as we age,” says Peter Kissinger of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. He thinks Ackerman’s film can  be a great icebreaker on the subject for many families. But Kissinger says asking someone to give up the keys to the car isn’t the only option. There are brochures, videos, online quizzes, screening tests, refresher courses and plenty of other tools offered by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, AARP and many other organizations that can help older drivers evaluate and improve their driving skills.

Insurance companies are getting involved as well. Last week, Allstate announced a test program to see if certain computer games (“brain fitness software”) can help drivers over 50 reduce their accident rates. If they do, Allstate may offer lower insurance premiums to drivers who use the software.

And if all these measures don’t help, there’s always the law. Licensing procedures vary by state, but many states are tightening up the rules and regulations for older drivers. For example, in May 2007, Texas enacted “Katie’s Law,” named for a young Dallas woman killed when a 90-year old driver ran a red light. Now Texas drivers age 79 and older must renew their license in person and take a vision test, while the license-renewal period for drivers aged 85 and older has been shortened. For the regulations in other states, see this chart put together by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Got a plan?
“In general,” says AAA's Kissinger, “it’s important to make driving retirement part of your overall plans for retirement.” That’s what filmmaker Ackerman, now 40, plans to do. He says if he starts driving like his grandma he’ll happily give up his license and let someone else drive him around. “Then I can talk on my cell phone, work on my computer and multi-task without having to worry about it.”

Sounds like a plan to me.

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for