When Is It Time to Give Up the Car Keys?

How to keep driving (safely) in your later years

Americans outlive their own ability to drive by six to 10 years on average. To many of them, that seems like a fate almost worse than death.

Sooner or later, the self-driving cars now under development should make it easier for nondrivers to get around, but those cars aren’t available yet. In the meanwhile, there are a number of things you can do to extend your time behind the wheel and simultaneously become safer on the road.

To begin with, you can buy one of the newer cars that have advanced safety features. By 2022, for example, automatic emergency braking systems (AEBs) should be standard equipment on most new cars, and they’re available now on more expensive models. An AEB warns you if you’re closing in too fast on the car ahead of you. If you respond but you’re not braking hard enough, it helps you out; if you don’t respond at all, it puts on the brakes for you. Even some less expensive cars offer other impressive safety features—for instance, a system that warns you if another car is approaching as you’re about to back up, or one that alerts you if there’s a car in your blind spot as you start to switch lanes.

But you don’t have to buy a new car to increase your safety on the road. There are other options.

The first step is to identify any driving problems you may have. One easy way to do that is to take an online quiz. If the results suggest you’re no longer as roadworthy as you once were, you can take a refresher course to upgrade your skills. Or if you realize that physical problems, such as weak leg muscles, could interfere with your driving, rehabilitation therapy may help. In addition, simple adjustments to your car can make you safer.

You can do most of this without even taking the car out of the garage, but if you have serious doubts about your ability to drive, there’s no substitute for a road test. There are specialists who will ride with you to observe and diagnose any problems, then suggest ways to fix them.

Quiz Yourself

A number of websites offer tests to assess your driving ability. They’re free and confidential—nobody else has to see the results. Typically, such quizzes ask about your physical condition, including vision and hearing, about medical problems and medications you’re taking and perhaps about recent fender benders and whether other drivers often honk at you.

A comprehensive questionnaire developed by the University of Michigan takes 15 to 30 minutes to complete. At the end, it provides a detailed assessment of your driving skills based on your answers, accompanied by specific suggestions for improvement.

If you take a self-assessment test and it reveals an area of weakness, that may actually be good news. Many common difficulties can be corrected.

Take a Refresher Course

Even if an online quiz doesn’t turn up any major problems, a refresher class isn’t a bad idea. If you didn’t grow up driving cars with antilock brakes, for example, you may not know the best ways to use them. You can also save money: many states require insurance companies to give you a discount or to lower your car-insurance premium if you take a refresher course. In some states, completing a course will reduce the points on your driver’s license.

AARP’s popular Driver Safety Program is available both in local classrooms and on the Internet. Though it’s open to all, it was designed for people 50 and older. It teaches defensive-driving tactics and covers current traffic regulations, but it also describes problems created by normal changes that can occur with aging, such as slower reaction times and diminished eyesight or hearing—changes that can happen so gradually you’re not aware of them. The course teaches you how to adjust your driving to compensate.

There are computer games designed to improve your reaction time and how quickly you can process what you see.

In 2017, AARP’s classroom course cost $20 for members and $25 for nonmembers. You can find information about classes in your area here or by calling 1-877-846-3299. The 2017 online course, which covers the same material, cost $19.95 for AARP members and $24.95 for nonmembers (fees are higher in New York).

In addition to AARP’s options, AAA also offers classroom courses for older drivers. Another possibility is to buy software like DriveSharp ($49 for most AAA members 55 and up), which is recommended by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. It’s like a computer game, but it’s designed to speed up your reaction time and ability to process what you see.

Keep Ahead of Bodily Changes

Though body and mind change with age, there are a number of things you can do to go on driving safely.

Have your eyes tested regularly. If night vision becomes a problem, you may have to give up driving after dark, but that needn’t stop you in daylight. Remind yourself to keep scanning the road and checking the mirrors—as people grow older, that’s something many forget to do.

If you’ve lost muscle strength, that can affect your ability to steer or to slam on the brakes. And arthritis can make it hard to look back over your shoulder when changing lanes. Exercise or physical therapy can improve muscle strength and flexibility for almost anyone, and that can help your driving.

At any age, you can improve the fit between your body and the car you drive. Perhaps the driver’s seat should be higher to give you an unobstructed view of the road. Or maybe you should sit farther from the steering wheel so the air bag can’t slam into you in a crash. In addition, try adjusting the car’s mirrors to minimize blind spots.

If you seriously question whether you should be driving, go for a road test with an expert.

You can get a free checkup for your car by going to an event organized by CarFit, an educational program developed by the American Society on Aging in collaboration with AARP, AAA and the American Occupational Therapy Association. CarFit specialists will analyze the fit between your car and you and make recommendations.

When CarFit was pilot tested in 10 cities in 2005, more than a third of older adults had at least one critical safety issue—for instance, about 20 percent didn’t have a proper sight line above the steering wheel. Look online for an event near you.

Automakers are beginning to offer features that make driving easier and safer for older adults, including systems that will signal you whenever another car is in your blind spot, and others that will alert you if you begin to drift out of your lane. There are cars that can parallel park all by themselves and soon there will be cars that actually drive themselves.

Get Tested behind the Wheel

Online quizzes and classroom lectures can be helpful, but if you have serious questions about your ability to drive, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face assessment by an expert, including a road test.

Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (CDRSs) are trained to spot driving problems and to come up with solutions. You can call a local hospital or rehab center for a recommendation.

At the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, NJ, a two-hour assessment begins indoors with tests of strength, coordination, reaction time and vision, as well as an evaluation of mental skills such as your ability to multitask. Then you get behind the wheel for a driving evaluation by a CDRS. At the end of the session, the CDRS might suggest physical therapy, stronger eyeglasses, on-the-road retraining or something else. The goal is to keep you driving for as long as you can do it safely.

Once in a while, when it really isn’t safe and a client clearly intends to go on driving anyway, the CDRS will report the individual to the licensing authorities. A driver-rehab evaluation isn’t cheap: at Kessler it costs $394, but it’s worth it if your safety and mobility are at stake.

Very few people who drive want to give it up, but nobody wants to have an accident, either. Fortunately, there are many ways to improve your road skills. You don’t have to choose between staying home and taking serious risks.