In a nation in love with its roads and highways, the very thought of being unable to drive can be anxiety-producing for older adults, bringing to mind concerns about becoming isolated or not being able to meet basic physical needs.
“Driving means a whole lot more than just a license in a wallet. It means independence, right? It means the ability to continue working or volunteering. It means being connected to one’s community,” said Michele Ellicks, community outreach coordinator for the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. “We need mobility for our quality of life – our income, social network, and well-being.”
But the reverse is also true, according to Ellicks. Being mobile helps us stay fit, but being fit, both mentally and physically, can also help us continue to drive safely for a longer period of time.
“Many studies show that mental fitness and physical fitness really do equate to longer driving life, driving later in life, and maintaining safe driving later in life,” said Ellicks. “There are so many things to do to maintain driver fitness – exercise classes, taking walks, strength and balance conditioning.”
As we age, four important areas – vision, hearing, cognitive skills, and reflexes – begin to deteriorate in ways that contribute to driving safety. If these go unchecked, it can affect how safely we’re able to drive, Ellicks said.
Ellicks advises older adults to “stave off the effects of aging” with regular visits to their medical professionals. For example, she said, “If you find you’re having trouble backing into the garage, talk to your eye doctor. The chances are very high they would have a remedy.”
Other age-related vision factors include changes to depth perception which helps us judge distances, visual acuity which affects our ability to see lane markings, difficulty seeing well at night, and more restricted peripheral vision.
This is why older drivers often create self-imposed limitations, Ellicks said, like choosing not to drive at night or not to drive long distance.
Planning for the time when you will no longer be driving is one of the first things Ellicks suggests older drivers do. First, she advises making a list of locations you normally drive to and from on a regular basis. Then, she said, “Look at that list and try to identify ways to get to those locations without having to drive.”
Ellicks also recommends regular fitness routines, including balance exercises, to say fit for driving longer.
For some people, choosing to stop driving is not a difficult decision. They simply decide they no longer want to drive.
“Maybe the joy of driving is waning; maybe there are too many cars out there,” Ellicks said. “This happened to my own father. One day he just came home and said, ‘I don’t wat to drive anymore.’ He made a decision in his heart and in his mind to not drive.”
For others, no longer being able to drive can be a shock, especially if it happens due to a sudden medical condition.
In both cases, advance planning can make the transition easier.
“We don’t want people trying to figure out their mobility in a crisis,” said Ellicks. “Plan ahead. Find out what’s available in your community.”
Options to consider include local Councils on Aging, public transportation like SRTA, and also ride-sharing programs like Uber and Lyft.
Most COAs offer rides to medical appointments or to grocery stores, said Jackie Coucci, director of the Mattapoisett COA. “People should look at the COA website or newsletters or contact the COA about where they have regular rides set.”
She also advises people “not be afraid to ask people for rides if need them.”
“Everybody needs to go to the grocery store. Ask when they’re going that way, would you mind letting me know,” she said. “It’s about getting creative.”
COAs are always willing to help, Coucci said, including assisting with technology that allows people to use ride sharing programs, like Uber and Lyft.
While there is no state-mandated age to stop driving, state law does require that a license holder who is 75 years or older must renew their driver’s license in person every five years. That means the individual will be taking a vision test during that visit. Until age 75, individuals can renew their license online two consecutive times.
The age-related regulation is similar to those in other states and is based on data, according to Ellicks. “The crash rate gets higher and higher at age 80 and older, unfortunately,” she said, “with high crash rates and also high fatality rates.”
Massachusetts policy is also a self-reporting policy, according to Ellicks, which means an individual who has been diagnosed with a medical condition that affects their driving is asked to self-report that condition to the registry. The RMV describes it this way: “A self-reporting state means that it is the license holder’s responsibility to report to the RMV any medical condition that may adversely affect one’s ability to drive. However, medical providers and law enforcement officers are encouraged to report unfit drivers as well.”
If an individual reports a condition, the state is then not able to process their renewal application, she said.
“It triggers them to say, ‘We’re not able to renew at this time. Here is a medical evaluation form for you to take to your doctor and get checked out. Complete the medical evaluation, bring it back to the state, and then the registry makes a determination based on what the expert says.”
Alternatively, if a medical or law enforcement official submits a report that says the individual is not fit to drive, the registry will act on that report immediately. The driver can then request a hearing on the decision, Ellicks said.
In addition to Mass.gov web-site resources, Ellicks teaches a free workshop at COAs called Shifting Gears, focusing on assessing one’s ability to drive and understanding what the limitations are.
She also recommends the program, CarFit, which was started by the American Occupational Therapy Association with the American Society on Aging, AAA, and AARP. CarFit helps older drivers better fit their vehicle, understand the adjustments and safety features, and discuss driving safety without fear of losing their license.