Why some seniors should sign ‘driving contracts’ and agree to hang up their car keys

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Some aging drivers are signing contracts to help determine when their time behind the wheel should come to an end. 

These “advance directives” are to help protect drivers’ safety and facilitate what can often be tough decisions for families.

Lewis Morgenstern, 61, a professor of neurology, neurosurgery and emergency medicine at the University of Michigan, plans to sign such an agreement when he turns 65, as reported by KFF Health News.

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Morgenstern will stop driving whenever his children decide it’s time, according to the directive.

“I recognize that I might not be able to make the best decision about driving at a certain point, and I want to make it clear that I trust my children to take over that responsibility,” Morgenstern told KFF Health News. 

Senior man driving

Nearly 50 million people 65 years of age and older had driver’s licenses as of 2021, a 38% uptick from 2012, according to the American Automobile Association via KFF Health News. (iStock)

Morgenstern was also the co-author of a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in Nov. 2023. It measured the driving behaviors of 635 individuals with cognitive impairment.

“I recognize that I might not be able to make the best decision about driving at a certain point.”

Researchers from the University of Michigan found that 61% of older adults with cognitive impairment were still operating a vehicle — even though 36% of their caregivers were concerned about their driving ability.

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“There is undoubtedly a group of people who are driving and shouldn’t be because they’re a risk to themselves and to others,” Morgenstern said.

Risks associated with senior driving

Data shows that risks are on the rise. As of 2021, nearly 50 million people age 65 and older had driver’s licenses, a 38% uptick from 2012, according to the American Automobile Association.

Almost 19 million of those drivers were 75 or older. 

Elderly woman holding keys

Some aging adults are signing contracts related to when they will give up their car keys, KFF Health News reported. (iStock)

Between 2012 and 2021, motor vehicle deaths involving drivers age 65 and older increased by 34%. The number of seniors injured in vehicle crashes that year exceeded 266,000 in 2021, KFF Health News reported.

Some of the biggest risks exist among older drivers who develop medical conditions that interfere with their driving ability, including dementia, Parkinson’s disease, glaucoma and arthritis.

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“Among the bigger safety concerns are fender benders that they do not remember,” Tina Paff, president of Bick’s Driving School of Western Hills in Ohio, told Fox News Digital.

“Sure, it could be a mailbox or a pole, but sometimes it is a car or a pedestrian.”

Driving at night can also be dangerous, she noted, as the visual processing speed in older drivers is decreased. 

Man with wrecked car

Older adults have a higher risk of injury in the event they’re involved in an accident, according to experts. (iStock)

Getting lost while driving is another common occurrence among senior drivers, said Paff, who heads up the Bick’s Driver Rehabilitation Program. It evaluates older adults’ driving skills to determine whether or not those drivers should “retire” from operating vehicles.

Nigel Tunnacliffe, co-founder and CEO of Coastline Academy, a national driving school headquartered in California, pointed out some of the biggest dangers associated with older drivers.

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Those include hearing loss, difficulty taking in their full surroundings, greater risk of injury in the event of an accident, the use of older car models, and a lack of experience behind the wheel, which is often a factor when an older adult loses a spouse and is suddenly the sole driver, he noted.

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‘No single, universal age’

There is “no single, universal age” at which people should stop driving, Tunnacliffe told Fox News Digital.

“It’s often not something that we can tell in advance. We cannot say with certainty that, for example, as soon as someone hits the age of 75, they should automatically and voluntarily step away from driving.”

He added, “It’s perfectly plausible — and common — that they will remain competent and effective drivers at that age.”

Handing over keys

A driving expert suggests families make driving decisions based on an “actual, objective evaluation” of how an individual is faring behind the wheel.  (iStock)

While Tunnacliffe acknowledged that age-related effects like vision loss, hearing loss and decreased mobility can make driving more dangerous, not everyone experiences these limitations at the same age, if at all. 

Rather than setting an arbitrary date beforehand, Tunnacliffe recommends that families make the decision based on an “actual, objective evaluation” of how the individual is faring behind the wheel. 

“We cannot say with certainty that as soon as someone hits the age of 75, they should automatically and voluntarily step away from driving.”

“For instance, having older adults take refresher courses can not only help make the decision of when to stop driving clearer, but it can also improve their driving skills more generally, and the assessments from those lessons can be shared with family members to help make the end-of-driving decision,” he told Fox News Digital. 

Types of driving contracts

There are various types of advance driving directives.

“One asks a person to name a family member or friend who will talk to them about whether it’s safe to continue driving,” noted KFF Health News. 

This type is not legally binding.

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With another type of contract, family members agree to help the person continue driving in a safe way or help the individual find an alternate means of transportation.

The Alzheimer’s Association has published a non-binding directive that encourages people with dementia to designate someone to flag any driving-related concerns as the disease progresses.

Part of the agreement states the following: “I understand that I may forget that I cannot drive anymore and may try to continue driving. If this happens, please know that I support all actions taken, including removing or disabling my car, to help ensure my safety and the safety of others.”

Old man driving

Age-related effects like vision loss, hearing loss and decreased mobility can make driving more dangerous, one expert told Fox News Digital. (iStock)

Paff said she thinks advance directives are “a great idea,” although she has some concerns that people with memory disorders won’t remember signing it.

“It would provide proof, however, for the families dealing with a disgruntled adult driver,” she said.

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These types of contracts could prove helpful if the driver was of sound mind when signing it, said Paff — but warned that in some cases, the memory-impaired parent may think it was “made up” or that “everyone is against me.” These are objections that she commonly hears, she said.

“There is undoubtedly a group of people who are driving and shouldn’t be because they’re a risk to themselves and to others.”

To minimize conflict and uncertainty, Paff recommends getting a formal evaluation from a third-party driver rehabilitation specialist to “take the family out of the mix.”

Tunnacliffe also recommends enrolling senior drivers in annual driving lessons, as well as having open and honest conversations about their cognitive and physical abilities.

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“The contract model does not challenge misleading assumptions and biases against older drivers, and it is important that we adopt a more realistic approach that respects both their safety and their autonomy,” he said.

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