In Texas, driving a car is practically viewed as an inalienable right – and in most cities, a necessity. So what happens when someone’s age makes it risky to keep driving? Many elderly people consider driving essential to remaining independent and being an active member of the community. Any discussion about taking the keys away can be tense and awkward and is often met with anger.
We have all seen stories in the news about an elderly driver losing control of the car, leading to property damage or worse, death. Last October, a 74-year-old woman in Houston lost control of an SUV that careened in reverse into an H-E-B grocery, killing a young mother. Despite such stories, many older drivers still refuse to turn over the keys voluntarily – even when it is apparent that they are a danger to themselves and others.
While there is no magical age when a driver should no longer operate a vehicle, loved ones should watch for signs, both physical and mental. Declining eyesight, hearing loss, slow reflexes and diminished range of motion are some of the physical reasons an individual no longer may be able to drive. Drivers must be able to respond quickly to avoid an accident, and these reflexes naturally diminish as we age. Additionally, memory issues may cause drivers to become confused or disoriented and unable to remember how to properly operate a car and to navigate to different locations, even familiar places that they have traveled many times.
In Texas, there are special laws regarding the renewal of driver’s licenses for older residents. Those between the ages of 79 and 84 must renew their licenses in person and the license expires after six years. Texans 85 or older must renew in person, and the license is only valid for two years. All Texans over the age of 79 must pass a vision test and may have to take a driving test if the Department of Public Safety representative doing the testing sees signs that the individual needs further evaluation. A medical advisory board is charged with making an assessment.
So how do you approach an aging loved one when it is time to take away the keys? The conversation should occur before driving problems appear. Loved ones should be proactive and discuss concerns with the elderly driver, as well as let the older individual participate in the decision of when to stop driving. The more ownership an individual has over this decision, the less there is likely to be resistance. However, family members should continue to observe the older driver’s skills and capabilities, and if there is an issue, address it immediately.
It is helpful to make alternative transportation available to the older person to help avoid isolation and uncomfortable dependence on friends and family members for rides. Taxis, Uber, or local ride-sharing options might offer a solution. Additionally, there are services available through home health agencies and other senior service oriented companies that offer transportation services to the grocery store, church and doctor’s appointments. Many health insurance companies also offer a limited number of rides to doctor’s appointments as a service provided under the policy.
Any conversation regarding driving should focus on the safety of the older driver, as well as on maintaining independence. The conversation, if possible, should remain positive and non-confrontational. In lieu of having the whole family participate, one member should initiate the talk to avoid causing the older person to feel under attack. Finally, expect a negative reaction and be sensitive to the older person’s concerns. Try to stay on the facts and not be accusatory. Use phrases such as, “I am concerned about your safety,” rather than, “You can’t drive.”
If resistance remains and it is necessary to take action immediately, consider enlisting the help of the elderly person’s physician or health care provider. Many law enforcement officers will also speak to an older individual about driving. Other third parties, such as an elder law attorney or geriatric care manager can also discuss driving solutions and concerns. Sometimes, an older person is aware that he or she needs to stop driving, but pride prevents taking orders from a child, even with the best of intentions. Hearing advice to stop driving from a third party can be less emotionally charged than hearing the same words from a child.
In extreme circumstances, if an older individual has been determined incapacitated and needs a court-appointed guardian, the order creating the guardianship can terminate the individual’s right to operate a vehicle. A guardianship is an extreme measure necessary to protect those who suffer from a physical or mental disability and cannot care for their personal health or manage financial affairs.
The information in this column is not intended as legal advice, but to provide a general understanding of the law. Readers with legal issues, including those whose questions are addressed here, should consult attorneys for advice on their particular circumstances.
Kelley M. Bentley is a senior associate in the Fort Bend County office of Roberts Markel Weinberg Butler Hailey PC. Ms. Bentley is Board Certified in Estate Planning and Probate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and is a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org and the law firm’s website is www.rmwbhlaw.com.