When and how to talk about driving safety
The driving talk is an accident waiting to happen — and an opportunity.
You want to keep your parent from getting hurt or hurting others. But your need for peace of mind is speeding towards a collision with your parent’s need for control and independence.
No wonder we avoid it as long as possible.
This is one of the first big “we need to talk” moments. How you handle it can either cause more damage or set a positive precedent for how to talk about sensitive topics in the future.
Here’s a road map to help you take action and keep moving in the right direction.
Before There’s a Problem
The decision to limit or stop driving has nothing to do with age. It’s about the functional ability to drive safely, or “driving fitness” — which is affected by physical and cognitive changes, medical conditions, medications, and other factors.
That’s why the absolute best time to talk about driving safety is well before there’s a problem, when anxiety about your parent behind the wheel isn’t keeping you up at night.
The key is to frame driving as part of a broader life planning process. In the same way financial planning helps people transition from a full-time income, transportation planning is a proactive approach to stay mobile when driving isn’t an option.
Use the AAA Driver Planning Agreement. This is not a legal document; it’s a brilliant conversation starter and commitment device that makes it easier to agree to talk — and makes the process thoughtful, positive, and collaborative.
Before There’s a Bigger Problem
If your parent is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s, or another type of dementia, the driving talk cannot wait.
These diseases are game changers for driver safety. Tap your parent’s healthcare providers for support, advice, and resources.
Regular monitoringis essential, especially in early stages when driving may still be possible.
- Parkingson’s Disease: Driving a Car (Web MD)
- Driving Safety and Alzheimer’s Disease (NIH)
- Dementia and Driving (Alzheimer’s Association)
When You See a Yellow Light
It can be hard to notice when progressive changes or health conditions have become a safety threat. Vision and hearing problems may be obvious. Cognitive changes that affect judgement and reflexes may not be.
Common warning signs include getting lost on familiar routes; multiple traffic tickets, accidents or near misses; trouble staying in the lane; new dents or scrapes on the car; and anxiety about driving at night or in traffic. Side effects from medications can also create problems.
When you see a yellow lihgt, pump the brakes. It’s time to talk before the light turns red.
What to Say and How to Say It
This is where the rubber meets the road. Here are some talking tips to help you avoid potholes and stya positive.
Manage your expectations. Working through the emotions, options, and decisions around driving fitness and safety is a process that happens overtime and multiple conversations.
Talk one-to-one. This isn’t an intervention. Bringing others in the room might make you feel better. Everyone may have the best of intentions. But if your parent feels outnumbered, alienated, or pressured, it’s going to backfire.
Start by asking your parent’s perspective. Your job isn’t to convince mom to stop driving. Your job is to listen and show you value her thoughts, feelings, and preferences. Tell her you undersand this isn’t easy. This is the time to strengthen your emotional connection and create goodwill.
Mind your words. Avoid absolutes such as “always” and “never.” Don’t dictate what “you should” or “you need to do.” Instead, use “I” statements: Rather than “You’re not driving safely,” say “I am concerned about your safety when you are driving.”
Stay on topic. Avoid the temptation to expand the conversation to include other “we should talk” topics. The last thing you want is for dad to worry he’s on a one-way street to assisted living.
Manage your emotions. Driving safety is one of those topics that triggers everyone. Expect pushback — and don’t overreact when it happens. The calmer and more centered you are, the easier it will be to…
Know when to back off. If you hit a wall, take a breath and let it go, Your parent got the message. So did you. Give yourselves a chance to cool off and try again in several days.
- We Need to Talk: Family Conversations with Older Drivers (The Hartford) — Download this actionable, comprehensive guide for more talking tips and conversation starters.
- Warning Signs Checklist (Genworth)
- Older Driver Safety Questionnaire (Health in Aging Foundation) — This online interactive guide asks specific questions and suggests specific next steps.
- Driver Planning Agreement (AAA)
- Driver Assessments and Evaluations (Roadway Safety Foundation) — Excellent overview of options, from short self-assessments to professional evaluations.
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