When driving becomes unsafe

by | August 6, 2013

With road accidents for those 60 and above going up each year, a talk by family members to their loved ones may be in order.

BY: Eleanor Yap

As we age, it is normal for our driving abilities to change.

With older adults who are in their 70s and 80s hitting the roads daily (and more to come with a growing greying population) so they may stay mobile and independent, a worrying issue that may arise is when should they hand over their keys.

As one ages, there may be vision changes, as well as medical conditions and medications, which could affect one’s driving abilities. Furthermore, one’s reaction time to roadway changes may decline which could mean a difference between life and death.


Increasing road accidents

According to the motorcar driver casualties in road accidents by age group in Singapore, in 2011, for those 60 and above, there were a total of 217 accidents, two of which were fatal. In 2012, the figure went up to 236, of which one was fatal. Here in the Republic, when renewing one’s motor vehicle licence after the age of 65, no proficiency driving test is required; only a medical checkup every three years by a registered medical practitioner, according to the Singapore Police Force’s Traffic Police Department.

(Interestingly, the rules for those holding a heavy vehicle licence are different – they are required to undergo a medical checkup by a registered medical practitioner every year from age of 65 till 69. They are also required to pass an annual proficiency driving test, and only then if they pass both, can their licences be renewed. These heavy vehicle licences will not be renewed once they reach the age of 70.)

Though this conversation about relinquishing one’s keys has yet entered people’s minds here in Singapore, it is happening in other parts of the world including the US, where the idea of a family driving agreement is circulating. This is where seniors who may currently be a perfectly fine driver voluntarily acknowledges that with age-related changes, “there may come a time when the advantages of my continuing to drive are outweighed by the safety risk I pose not only to myself, but also to other motorists”.

With this document, the driver designates a trusted friend or relative to notify him when he should stop driving or continue driving only with certain restrictions. He pledges to listen and accept the person’s recommendations. Then the driver, his designated advisor and a witness, or several, affix their signatures.

Though the document carries no legal weight, it however remains as the first step to an important and sometimes, emotional conversation that should take place if you have an ageing loved one.


Family members working together

In 2009, in the US, there were 33 million licenced drivers age 65 and older, according to the US Federal Highway Administration, Department of Transportation, Highway Statistics 2009. And according to the US Census Bureau, in 2009, there were 5,900 driver casualties for those 55 to 64 years of age, 3,500 for those 65 to 74 years, and 3,800 for those 75 years and over. The family agreement document couldn’t come at a better time and the man behind this initiative is none other than 51-year-old Matt Gurwell.

Matt Gurwell, left, when he was an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper, with then president George Bush.

After 24 years as an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper and then an administrator, he wanted to improve highway safety and more specifically, keep “older drivers, safe drivers”. In 2008, he started a national organisation in the US called Keeping Us Safe where through its products and services, it focuses on the older drivers and involves their families.

There wasn’t one particular event that left an indelible mark on Gurwell, however he credits his “20-plus years of holding dying people in my arms at terrible car accidents, and delivering dozens and dozens of death notifications to families” that made him relook at how he could help others. He said: “I would much rather work with families bringing a peaceful resolve to this sensitive and uncomfortable issue now, rather than have them deal with it when an Ohio State trooper comes knocking on their front door.”

Through Keeping Us Safe, Gurwell sells a “Beyond Driving With Dignity” workbook for family members and older drivers to use together to assess drivers’ skills and consider alternatives that may “limit driving, not living” such as carpooling or public transportation. The book is available at US$27.95 (S$35.49), plus shipping and handling.

He also offers one-on-one assessments by certified professionals that help older drivers decide whether they can safely continue driving. The three-hour session costs US$350 (S$444.39). So far, he has certified 70 people who are now offering assessments in 16 US states and six Canadian provinces. He also gives presentations to the public – one targeted to older drivers and the other for family members/caregivers of older drivers. And finally, the family driving agreement which is on his website is free for downloading here.

However, Gurwell is quick to warn that this agreement isn’t for everyone – “Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in the older driver certainly limits the effectiveness of such an agreement so the agreement is not appropriate in every family situation”.

It is important to have that conversation with your loved one about handing over the car keys.

Asked how family members should broach the subject of when to hand over the keys, he shared this advice: “In helping families address this very delicate and often times emotional issue, we encourage adult children to begin talking with their ageing parents immediately about the issue of someday giving up driving. This is regardless of where the older driver is in the continuum of diminishing driving skills. 

“This way an open door of communication is established surrounding the driving issue. By doing so, if and when it does come time for the adult children to raise the level of seriousness of these conversations, they will go much smoother and will appear as less of an attack on the older driver.” 


SIDEBOX: Tips on driving safely

Some steps for seniors to take to stay safe on the road, culled from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and non-profit resource, Helpguide.org: 

  • Exercise regularly to increase strength and flexibility.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review medicines – both prescription and over-the counter – to reduce side effects and interactions.
  • Have your eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year. Wear glasses and corrective lenses as required. Also, have your hearing checked annually and use hearing aids if needed.
  • Drive during daylight and in good weather.  
  • Find the safest route with well-lit streets, intersections with left turn arrows, and easy parking.  
  • Plan your route before you drive.
  • Leave a large following distance behind the car in front of you.
  • Avoid distractions in your car, such as listening to a loud radio, talking on your cell phone, texting and eating.
  • Considering potential alternatives to driving, such as carpooling or using public transport so you can get around.
  • Make sure you have enough sleep as this could affect your driving.

Other useful resources –

• www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/olddrive/OlderAdultswebsite/index.html



(** PHOTO CREDITS: Keeping Us Safe)



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