Health Advice



A tough question: When should an older driver stop driving?

Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., Harvard Health Blog on

Published in Health & Fitness

When my grandmother repeatedly clipped the mailbox backing out of her driveway, she always had a ready explanation: “the sun was in my eyes” or “your grandfather distracted me.” Our family knew we needed to take action. But no one wanted to be the one to ask her to stop driving. She was fiercely independent, didn’t agree that her driving was a problem, and didn’t appreciate our concerns.

Maybe there’s a similar story unfolding in your family. Or maybe you’re starting to wonder about your own skills. As part one in a two-part series, this post aims to help people understand red flags to watch for, and why driving abilities change as people age. It also describes a few ways to improve impaired driving, and challenges to navigate.

A second post will address ways to strike a balance that respects dignity — and safety — while providing action plans for older drivers and their families.

How safe are older drivers on the road?

Unsafe drivers can be any age, particularly when drinking is involved. But fatal traffic accidents have risen in both young drivers and older drivers, according to data from the National Safety Council:

While younger drivers may be inexperienced or more likely to be distracted or reckless, older drivers often overestimate their driving abilities. That may be one reason many unsafe older drivers continue to drive despite failing driving skills.


Per mile driven, the rate of motor vehicle accidents is higher for drivers ages 80 and older than for almost every other age group, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Only the youngest drivers have higher rates. And the rate of fatal motor vehicle accidents per mile driven is higher for drivers aged 85 and older than for every other age group.

These statistics reflect the reality that an older driver may not be the only one injured or killed in a crash — occupants in one or more vehicles may be, too. And then there are pedestrians and cyclists at risk.

Clearly, the stakes are high when any unsafe driver is on the road. For older drivers with waning driving skills, it’s important to recognize the problem and understand why it’s happening. The following four steps are a good start.

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