Older drivers may or may not become dangerous drivers, but an unfortunate truism of aging is that some of our most competent, successful, self-actualized and responsible citizens can become dangerous drivers … to themselves and to others.

The tragic stories are many… I won’t sensationalize them here. A March 2017 Insurance Information Institute report states that older drivers have higher rates of fatal crashes than all age groups other than the youngest age group.

Of course, it is one thing to say “aging drivers can be dangerous” as social commentary. It’s another thing altogether to say that to an aging individual. The transition from complete autonomy to increasing dependence upon others is challenging. It is always a difficult conversation, but it is a crucial conversation to have at the right time. I went through it for a few years with my own father. He was a 30-plus years Teamster and long-haul truck driver.

You think he gave up his keys very easily?

The problem is, there is no specific “right time” to have the conversation. You may have a perfectly competent 94-year-old driver, and a menace-on-the-road 69-year-old driver. Age is not at all a good indicator. However, truth be known, by the time most drivers give up their keys, everyone around them would agree that they should have done it a lot sooner than they did.

The loss of driving skills and reflexes creeps up on people unless they have had a sudden severe health event. There can be deep resistance to giving up driving, and deep levels of denial and covering up of minor accidents. These are early warning signs of a dangerous older driver. The car gathers more unexplained dings and dents and sideswipes and all the family members have raised eyebrows, but feel perplexed about what to do.

We want to intervene, but we don’t want to offend or hurt feelings. It’s just not that simple and easy for family members, and this is why many turn to an outside third party to have the “Dad-you-can-no-longer-drive” conversation. Our ability to drive and enjoy the freedom of the road is a huge American cultural value. It’s a big part of our identity.

The loss of the ability to drive is so hugely symbolic that it can seem to mean “your life is over.” You might as well be an oncologist telling someone they have cancer when you tell someone they can no longer drive. Except with cancer, you might have a fighting chance!

The loss of driving privileges feels like a threshold that once crossed, there is no return. It can create feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and despair as autonomy feels like it is slipping away.

I have infinite compassion when I have stop driving conversations with aging drivers. I also have the sure knowledge that to avoid and delay the conversation potentially places the health and lives of others at risk. And so it is with both genuine compassion and civic responsibility and knowledge that I help an aging driver make the emotional transition to letting go of driving, not because he is forced, but because he sees the wisdom and dignity in doing so.

The conversation has to start somewhere, but with complete respect for all of the feelings related to identity and autonomy. However, once you have identified that there are safety problems, you need to begin that conversation.

If you meet angry resistance, you need to come back to it enough times to reach agreement on limits or to stop driving altogether. If you still meet a brick wall, it is time for a direct discussion with your parent’s physician. Ask that a report be made to the DMV so that a driving test and assessment is required. It is the wisest, safest and most compassionate thing you can do.

If you are an older driver facing these issues, I wish you well in making the wiser choice to give up driving at the right time, before something serious occurs. It’s not an easy decision for anyone.

When it is my time, I hope I am able to make that choice as wisely as I am advising.

Jill Wallace is the owner and director of Elm Street Assisted Living in Topsham. Steve Raymond is director of community outreach at the Lincoln Home in Newcastle, and the producer and host of the television show “Spotlight on Seniors.”

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