Those are the questions many are likely asking in light of the news that the legendary 97-year-old actor Dick Van Dyke was in a driving accident last week in Malibu, Calif. According to reports, Van Dyke’s silver Lexus collided with a gate, but the actor suffered only minor injuries. He appeared to be the driver and sole occupant of the vehicle.
Like many states, California makes certain requirements of older drivers as a safeguard — specifically, it requires that those 70 and over renew their license in person and provide proof of adequate vision. Some states also require that older drivers renew their licenses more frequently.
Still, all this hasn’t stopped seniors from driving. In fact, according to AAA, by 2030, there will be more than 70 million people age 65 or older in this country — and 85 to 90% of them will have a driver’s license. At the same time, AAA warns that we must face a reckoning when it comes to our ability to hit the road as we age, noting that “seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of 7-10 years.”
In effect, AAA says, “we must plan for our ‘driving retirement’ just as we plan for our financial retirement.”
Not that it’s so simple to give up driving. At issue, say those who are familiar with the challenges confronting senior drivers, are two major problems. First, life in the U.S. is largely built around the car: Save for those who live in major cities with highly developed public-transportation systems, Americans rely on their vehicles to get to the store, to the doctor’s office, to, well, anywhere.
There are ways around this for seniors — say, by living in a retirement community that provides transportation or by relying on taxi services or the like. In light of Van Dyke’s accident, some have wondered why the actor, a man who likely has the financial means to hire a private driver, didn’t do so. (MarketWatch reached out to Van Dyke for comment but didn’t receive a response.)
But that gets into the second problem — to give up driving is to give up a sense of independence that many seniors value.
“ ‘My skills are diminished. I drive differently than when I was younger.’ ”
— Mark MacDonald, Vermont state senator, age 80
It’s a problem that Neil Charness, a psychology professor at Florida State University, knows all too well. Not only has he devoted a chunk of his research to senior-related driving issues, he also had to confront his father, then in his 90s, about the possibility of giving up driving.
As Charness recalled of his late dad’s response: “He said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to pry that steering wheel out of my hands.’”
Which is not to say that older drivers are necessarily more reckless drivers or that there is some exact age when driving should become a no-no, according to experts. If anything, older drivers can be much safer drivers by virtue of their years of experience on the road. And that’s increasingly the case when comparing them to drivers in their 20s, Charness notes, pointing to how the younger cohort is more prone to such issues as speeding or driving while impaired.
Indeed, Charness said it’s not until about age 85 that older drivers are as crash-prone as those in their 20s.
Still, there’s no denying that as you age, you may face a range of physical and cognitive challenges that could affect your ability to drive. To say nothing of the fact you may be on medications that could impair your ability to operate a motor vehicle.
That’s why experts advise older drivers to have frank discussions with their healthcare providers about the driving question. Or to seek out other ways to evaluate themselves, as AAA advises.
Unfortunately, too many seniors presume they’re more capable than they are, said Dr. Karen Severson, a geriatric psychiatrist based in West Palm Beach, Fl.
“They think that just because they’ve not had an accident before, they’re not going to have one in the future,” she said.
Even when age-related challenges arise, there may be ways to work around them without giving up driving altogether, experts advise. A driver with arthritis that may affect their ability to turn their neck and check their blind spots can buy a car with blind-spot technology. A driver who feels they’ve lost some of their edge when it comes to certain tricky driving maneuvers — say, making a left turn at a busy intersection — can possibly choose to avoid that intersection.
But Cherness said if the driver is starting to suffer from dementia, that should be the end of the road — literally. Ironically, the dementia often prevents them from seeing “how bad their condition is,” he added.
Of course, that’s one of the instances when children of elderly drivers or others close to them can try to intervene. It’s never an easy task, experts advise, but it’s one that can be a lifesaver. A number of websites provide tips about navigating the conversation, including the need for suggesting transportation alternatives. “The best way to fix a problem is to find a solution,” one site noted.
Severson warns that if the situation becomes dire, children or others can consider more drastic measures, such as taking away an elderly driver’s keys or disabling the vehicle.
Cherness said the problems associated with seniors and driving could be somewhat solved if we put more money into our public-transportation systems or worked out ways with the private sector to assist in supporting transportation options. For example, a supermarket chain might offer free rides for seniors, knowing it would bring it business, Cherness suggested.
Cheness also said that technology could continue to make a difference, pointing to driverless cars as a potential future option for seniors.
Of course, another way to grapple with the issues associated with older Americans on the roads is via the law — meaning having states place more requirements on senior drivers. Not surprisingly, such proposals are often given a thumbs-down by seniors, who have traditionally constituted a powerful voting bloc and who also have the lobbying power of the AARP (the group formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) behind them.
Consider a recent bill in Vermont that would have required drivers 75 or older to pass both a vision and road test in order to renew their license. It was opposed by the AARP, which said “it discriminates against older drivers on the basis of age. AARP’s policy supports effective, evidence-based assessment models to identify at-risk drivers of all ages.” (AARP didn’t immediately respond to a MarketWatch request for comment about the legislation or other matters related to seniors and driving.)
The Vermont bill never made it past the committee stage. Which came as no surprise to Vermont state senator Mark MacDonald, who sponsored the legislation. He said he knew he was in for a tough fight, but he thought it was important to recognize there comes a time when some seniors shouldn’t be allowed to drive.
MacDonald noted that he was speaking from experience, having recently turned 80 himself — in other words, the law, if approved, would have applied to him. MacDonald said that he still feels capable enough to drive, and he continues to do so, despite having recently suffered a stroke, which resulted in his insurance company requiring him to take a road test (he said he passed).
But MacDonald also said he knows the reality of growing older.
“My skills are diminished,” he said. “I drive differently than when I was younger.”