Coming to the decision to stop driving | Page on Age

We are now living longer than we ever have before in history. We have had more years added to our life expectancy in the 20th century than in all of recorded time. In fact, the fastest growing segment of the population in King County is people over the age of 75. One byproduct of this surge will be more older drivers on the road. Statistically, right now, the population with the most car accidents is the 16- to 25-year-olds. However, how might these statistics change when there are more older people driving?

Mobility means independence. How many of you remember getting your first driver’s license? Or when you got your very first car? It was definitely a right of passage and has such an important connotation to the feeling of freedom. But due to some common aging declines — visual, attention, perception, psycho-motor and physical issues — driving can be challenging. Memory and cognition impairment can also bring a special challenge to older drivers and their families. So how do we decide when it is unsafe to drive anymore, and who gets to make that decision?

Currently in Washington, we do not have any laws that retest or put restrictions on driving at any age. A driver can be reported for re-examination to the Department of Licensing if there are physical or functional problems that make driving unsafe: Anyone can fill out this form, but it cannot be done anonymously. If the person who is being reported wants to know who reported him, the DOL will tell them. However, this does not necessarily automatically take someone’s license away. This affords the reported the opportunity to prove that they can still drive safely. It is solely up to the discretion of the DOL re-examiner.

However, other states do have legislation that mandates that after the age of 75, people must retake the road test. Those states are Illinois and New Hampshire. But, physical or mental decline that might make a driver unsafe is not always related to age. Some younger adults may not have the ideal functioning to be operating a motor vehicle safely. It makes more sense to have legislation that does not focus just on age but on the ability to drive safely.

Keep in mind that for many of our older adults here in suburbia, the inability to drive equals house arrest. Transportation services have not caught up with our aging trends. Yes, there are options like METRO/Access if you are eligible, and Volunteer Transportation for Seniors in King County — (206) 448-5740 for medical appointments only — but it is not a panacea and certainly not like getting in your own car at any time to go anywhere.

This is a tricky subject to even bring up before there is a problem. Many people start to self-select titrating their driving; no driving at night, during rush hour or off the Island. For others, this may be one of the biggest reasons why they move into a retirement home or nearer to public transportation. But the final giving up of the keys and graciously accepting driving assistance is not always easy. Because of our longevity statistics, many of us may need to creatively plan for our future transportation needs.

Betsy Zuber is the geriatric specialist for Mercer Island Youth and Family Services.


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