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Boomer Bytes #8: Driving: Knowing When To Quit

Editor’s Note: Below is Steve Canipe’s fourth column in his series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

  • See second column – Are We Really Old? – here
  • See third column – Cars and More Cars – here
  • See fourth column – Getting Educated – here
  • See fifth column – Home Alone? – here
  • See sixth column – Death – here
  • See seventh column – They’re Playing Our Song – here

Driving: Knowing When To Quit

By Steve Canipe

What is worse than the loss of freedom when you have to give up your mobility?  In other words, what happens when you can no longer drive yourself to where you want to go and when you want to go? Most of us remember full well when we got that learning permit and a bit later the first driver’s license.  Then the memory of taking our first solo trip – probably to somewhere totally insignificant – like maybe to the store to pick up something for our mom.  Then we had a real joy of going out with friends and maybe on a date.  Wow what freedom we had!

Now as we are reaching what some call our “golden years” are we bound to lose that freedom that we’ve had for the past 50 or so years?  Some younger folks naturally assume that we are no longer what we were.  That supposition, of course, is true.  An earlier column talked about some of our physical changes, like my mind’s willingness to once again dunk a basketball but the body’s limitation to actually reaching the bottom of the net!


Our reflexes have slowed down, at least mine have.  With reaction time slowing due to age, something else has also happened; namely better decision-making and less of a need to have to react so quickly because we are always thinking of potential situations and staying a step ahead.

When it is time for us to actually give up our driving and the freedom it provides, will we be smart enough to do it with grace?  That is a really good question; the oldest of the boomers will be turning 68 this year of 2014.  Most folks at this age, unless there are major health issues, are still pretty much able to go and do without much concern.  If cataracts have become a problem, there is compensation to either not drive at night or drive only where the streets are well-known or even have surgery.  I think and also hope that most of us boomers will be sensitive to what our bodies tell us about the ability to drive and not endanger ourselves or others by driving when we cannot see very well.  But what of the other issues of aging – reflexes, hearing, arthritis, concentration, etc.?

Those are really good questions and what I want to explore a bit this week is safe and continued driving.  A number of traffic safety studies going back several years show that older people are less likely to be involved in accidents.  Is this due to us just driving less or are other factors at play?  Most of the studies have focused on those 70 and older (getting closer with each of our birthdays!!).

A recent study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety noted that those 70+ are less likely to be involved in crashes and are less likely to be killed or suffer serious injury, if they are involved in a wreck.  Visit the site at (http://goo.gl/4FlSBH) to see the whole report.

The institute posits that there are a couple of reasons: 1) vehicles are getting safer if there is an accident and also smarter in helping avoid accidents with alerts notifying of pending crashes and 2) older drivers are healthier. The first reason is borne out by the fact that fatalities in the US have been declining overall and are now at levels not seen since the late 1940s.The report also notes that since 1997 older drivers have had rate decreases larger than the middle age drivers (ages 35-54).  During the time studied and reported (1997-2012), middle-age drivers had a fatality crash rate decrease of 30%.  Older drivers during the same period had a decrease of 42%.

There should immediately be a question about the number of miles driven – don’t middle-age drivers just plain drive more? In looking at a per mile driven basis the nod still goes to older drivers at a decrease in fatalities by 39% to 26% for middle-age drivers.  The report notes that the greatest fatality rate decline was for those over 80; it was nearly double the rate for middle agers!

Ann McCartt, the senior vice president for the institute and co-author of the study, stated that “No matter how we looked at the crash data for this age group—by licensed drivers or miles driven—the fatal crash involvement rates for drivers 70 and over declined, and did so at a faster pace than the rates for drivers ages 35-54.”

To make us aging folks feel even better, is the fact that we are driving more, although still less than our younger generations, and having fewer accidents.  The study noted that drivers 75 and older had increased their total miles driven by 50% from 1995 to 2008.  Why is this?  Perhaps it is due to the two factors mentioned earlier 1) cars feel and are safer and 2) elders feel more comfortable taking on the driving tasks by being healthier and more mentally alert.

All this is a good thing as more and more of us will probably continue to work past the normal retirement age and some of us will commute to those jobs.  Part of this work continuation may be due to our enjoyment in working, some due to necessity to make ends meet, and some for combinations of these and other reasons.  Regardless, I believe that we can safely assume that we will not necessarily be a menace on the highways.  Especially as “smarter” cars are developed with them even being able to sense an impending wreck and putting on brakes for us.

Before we all plan cross-country trips to celebrate out 75th birthdays, we do need to remember that there are still numbers of folks, both young and old involved in accidents.  As we age, we do become frailer and heal more slowly.  These factors alone increase our risk of death or serious injury in any accident. We all know that if a 5 year old breaks a bone s/he can be back to normal in a few weeks, whereas an adult may take several months. This time difference is true even for a fairly simple break.  None of our healing processes are as fast as we age; we all know how healing works from any disease or injury.  Injuries, even seemingly minor ones, in an accident are therefore worse as we get older.

Some of us have already had “the conversation” with our parents about their driving.  Probably it was a harder conversation than the “birds and the bees” conversations we had with our kids. A different dynamic would be in play.  Mom or Dad was the one who taught us to drive and encouraged (to one degree or another) our independence based on driving.  Now they may see us as trying to take away their independence. 

Emotional issues certainly came into play with my Mom when it was time for her to quit driving; this was after an accident she had by pulling out in front of another vehicle. She was about 89 at the time. Fortunately no one was badly injured, only her car was totaled; it could have been a lot worse. She did not quit driving immediately.  I told her that since the accident was her fault that the NC Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) might take her license or at least make her take a road driving test.  Her comment was that regardless if she had a license or not she was driving!! There was no road test and at her next license renewal all she had to do was show that she could see!  This was definitely not safe in her case; she could see but her reaction times were really slow.

Several years later, after a fall at her home and a subsequent hospitalization, she was no longer driving.  She had made the decision to quit (without my actually taking her keys away) – but she was still legally licensed to drive until age 96 according to the DMV.

So back to my question from the beginning…what happens when you can no longer drive yourself to where you want to go and when you want to go? Will I and will you recognize when it is no longer safe for us to drive?  I want to think I would quit but I honestly don’t know if I will be willing to easily give up that freedom of movement that has been mine for so many years from when I was 16.

Let me hear from you either in the comment area below or send me an email at boomerbytes@yahoo.com; do you think you will be able to give up driving easily?  Will you know when?  Are you likely to be angry at your kids or doctor, if they tell you it is time to stop driving before you are ready?  Drive safely!!