Safe Driving Information for Seniors and Caregivers

When is the right time for an older adult to stop driving? The answer to that question is different for everyone.

As a person ages, declining health conditions can deteriorate in ways that make safely operating a vehicle a challenge. Hearing and vision can worsen, reaction times slow down, and certain medications can cause side effects that interfere with a person’s ability to drive. Advancement in new car technologies can also be confusing, making it difficult to operate.

Currently, there are no state laws obligating a person to surrender their license, but many states do impose certain requirements and restrictions on older drivers designed to keep drivers and roadways safe.

Ensuring safety on the road is important for all drivers, but when it comes to seniors and driving, caregivers are often in the difficult position of evaluating their loved one’s ability to stay safe on the road. If you are advising your parent or loved one about safe driving practices, following are some frequently asked questions to help inform your discussions:

What are the requirements for seniors to maintain their driver’s license?

Each state varies when it comes to renewing your driver’s license for drivers over a certain age. Visit driving-tests.org and choose your location from the drop-down menu to find out the specific requirements in your state.

Some states, such as Illinois, require that drivers over the age of 81 renew their driver’s license every two years; after age 87, drivers are required to renew annually.

Detailed state-by-state license renewal cycles and other useful information can be found at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) website.

What is Unsafe Elderly Driver Reporting?

Certain states like Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Jersey offer confidential unsafe driver reporting by anyone, such as a doctor, law enforcement professional, or relative. Once reported, the driver in question may be required to provide medical reports or perform road, written, or vision testing at the DMV to maintain their driver’s license. A failure to comply can result in a revoked license.

Do seniors need to retake a driving test as they age to renew their license?

The requirements for older drivers can vary according to the state in which your driver’s license was issued. Some states require mandatory in-person renewals, road tests, and other health checkups like recurring vision tests at the time of every license renewal.

How can seniors lower their car insurance premiums?

Vehicle insurance premiums for seniors can be expensive, especially if you’d had an accident or two in recent years. The AARP Smart Driver™ course can help lower insurance premiums and improve driving skills.

Designed as a driver safety program specifically to help seniors hone their driving skills through proven safety and defensive driving techniques, the comprehensive course offers information on reducing distractions and the proper use of safety belts, air bags, and new car technologies.

According to AARP, its Smart Driver program also addresses other challenges particularly experienced by seniors such as new rules of the road and “how to compensate for challenges in vision, hearing, and reaction time.”

Once completed, seniors are eligible for a multi-year discount on auto insurance. The AARP Smart Driver™ course can be completed online or in person, and AARP members receive discounts on registration.

Who is eligible for handicap parking?

Senior citizens or persons over a certain age do not automatically qualify for a handicap-parking permit. The handicap parking program for disabled individuals and their caregivers is managed by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and criteria to obtain a parking permit varies by state.

The two most common handicap permits are handicap license plates for disabled drivers, and handicap placards, which attach to a vehicle’s rearview mirror. Handicap placards are ideal for caregivers because they can be transferred to any vehicle used to transport a person with mobility issues.

Permanent disability placards require renewal forms; placards issued for a temporary medical disability (i.e. such as an accident or post-surgery) cannot be renewed in most states without the certification of a licensed healthcare provider. Temporary disability placards are generally good for six months unless otherwise indicated by your medical care provider.

How can I obtain a handicap parking license plate, sticker, or placard for my vehicle?

Those in need of handicap parking access, for themselves or as a caregiver who transports a person with mobility issues, can pick up a handicap permit form in person at their nearest DMV location or download one from your state’s DMV website. It’s important to note that your medical care provider will need to complete and sign a portion of the form to verify your disability.
Completed applications can be submitted by mail or in person at your local DMV.

Are there programs to help aging seniors improve their driving skills?

To keep seniors driving longer and as safely as possible, the American Automobile Association (AAA) offers several free programs available to evaluate driving ability and maintain good driving skills. Here are some of them:

  • AAA’s RoadWise™ driver program is an online senior driving defensive course designed to “positively affect driving behavior and help you learn about and adjust to age-related physical changes.”
  • AAA also offers very helpful Driver Evaluation information that helps determine if a person’s driving skills have diminished. Their Drivers 65 Plus self-rating tool brochure is a very good place to start, however if you are in need of a professional assessment, clinical driving assessment, or a more formal driving skills evaluation, AAA has club-owned and AAA-approved driving schools in many locations. Reach out to your local AAA club for more information.

How can seniors learn to adapt to new vehicle technology?

Advancements in automotive technology has made operating a vehicle increasingly confusing to older drivers, such that even the tech-savviest among us have trouble adapting to all the bells and whistles. One positive for seniors: much of the technology comes in the form of new safety features, such as: backup cameras, GPS mapping, forward collision warning, brake assists, pedestrian detection, lane departure warnings, and blind spot warnings — which all make for much safer driving and fewer accidents.

When purchasing a new vehicle, be sure to test drive several different options and ask a lot of questions. AAA offers a great training guide on advanced driver assistance technology for older driver safety, designed to familiarize seniors and their caregivers on the capabilities and limitations of various driver safety technologies.

Once you decide on a new vehicle, it’s a good idea to check out YouTube tutorial videos that showcase all the features and functionality in your new car. Watching someone demonstrate what it can do will help familiarize the driver before they get behind the wheel.

How do you know when it’s no longer safe for your parent to be driving?

At some point, seniors will begin to exhibit signs that reveal weaknesses in ability, reaction time, and other skills needed to be a safe driver. Often, the sudden onset of a health issue can makes it difficult to get safely behind the wheel; for others, it’s a slow and steady decline that makes it more difficult to determine when is the right time to call it quits. If your parent is showing signs of early dementia — like getting lost while driving familiar roads — this should most certainly accelerate your decision.

No matter when it starts, it’s always difficult to face the fact that a loved one no longer should be driving — and even harder to convince them to give up their keys for good. Older adults commonly report that it feels like the end of their independence, but for those suffering the early signs of dementia, they might not fully understand or accept their condition, which makes it particularly hard on their caregivers.

What are the most common warning signs that it’s time to stop driving?

Common signs it’s time to turn in your keys — or intervene on behalf of an older loved one include:

  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings
  • Feelings of frequent confusion or disorientation
  • Driving too slow — or too fast
  • Running stop signs or forgetting the basic rules of the road
  • Frequent minor accidents and close calls
  • Failing the guardrails your state’s DMV has in place to help determine when a person is no longer a safe driver due to vision or other declining health conditions