When Is It Time to Hang Up the Car Keys?

Cyclist in Malmo Sweden
A senior cyclist in Sweden demonstrates one of the easiest solutions to the thorny transportation issue: One solution for a growing population of older people to become less reliant on cars, both for health and for opportunity. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Being forced to give up the car keys is apparently one of the most traumatic events of growing older. My dad joked that he hoped he died before he turned 80. (At the time, you had to take another driver's test when you reached 80, and he knew he would fail.) Unfortunately for everyone else in the family, he got his wish.

My mom adored her little red Echo; it gave her the freedom to go to galleries and bridge games and restaurants with friends. She finally lost her license when she lost control of the car in the middle of winter and scraped the sides of a few BMWs and Mercedes. (She lived in a fancy part of town). Desperate to get her driving privileges back, she hired instructors to help her pass the test; they all ran away screaming and she failed again. Without her car, she was bereft.

You can read article after article about when it's time to take away the car keys from mom or dad. (All the articles assume that someone is doing this to their parents, who want to keep driving.) But it all comes back to the problems that affect many older drivers, including:

Vision, especially night vision, deteriorates significantly as you age.

Hearing isn't mentioned much, and it's downplayed because people are sealed in their cars listening to Rush, but when you are behind the while you need to hear sirens and other exterior noises.

Medications have side effects that can make you drowsy or slow to react.

One website, agingcare.com, listed two other interesting issues:

Physical ability: Driving takes dexterity, ability and strength in both arms and legs/feet to control the vehicle at all times — so physical limitations matter.

Physical activity: Mature adult drivers die in auto accidents at a rate higher than those from other age groups because many do little or no exercise, not even a daily walk outside. Therefore, if your parent currently does no physical activity to maintain or build strength, agility and aerobic ability, this should be a concern.

According to Bunni Dybnis, a social worker interviewed by NPR, almost nobody wants to give up the keys. Usually it's the kids who intervene. "I could probably say it's 99.99 percent not the older adult saying, 'I want to stop driving; help me," says Dybnis, because giving up driving feels like giving up independence.

But perhaps it's time to change that statistic and to turn it on its head. Instead of waiting for the kids to take away the keys, maybe we older drivers should actively try to throw them away as fast as we can.

apta. (Photo: apta)

Why would you want to do that?

There are many reasons to give up the keys as soon as you can. Jim Motavalli wrote on MNN that it can save you more that $9,100 per year to own a car. I've seen other studies that says it costs up to $15,000. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) did calculations that show it varies across the country (and you can see those spelled out at right).

Driving is also stressful; an MIT study found that driving in New York City was as stressful as skydiving out of an airplane. An article by CityClock.org noted:

Research from German, British, American, and Canadian institutions collected live data from drivers and found higher levels of many stress indicators. Higher heart rates, blood pressure, anxiety. Further studies also showed more driving correlated with more sick days and appearances in the hospital.

Driving is also deadly for older people for the most basic of reasons: their bodies are more fragile and they get in a lot of crashes.

According to an AAA foundation study, the Older Driver Involvement in Injury Crashes report, drivers over the age of 65 are almost twice (1.78 times) as likely to die in car crashes as drivers age 55 to 64, and drivers over 75 were over two-and-a-half times (2.59) as likely to die in a car crash and drivers over 85 were almost four times (3.72) as likely to die when compared to drivers aged 55 to 64.

"As we age, our reaction time and other cognitive skills can diminish," said Peter Kissinger, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "For instance, our eyesight deteriorates to such an extent that by age 60 we require ten times the amount of light necessary to see an object as when we were 16."

But perhaps the single most important reason to hang up the keys is that it's healthier. We recently covered studies that showed the effect of 30 minutes a day of exercise, and how it extends your life. That's why people in big cities like New York and London are healthier and slimmer — they walk more, and just living their daily lives in that setting provides exercise. And walking is a lot less stressful, according to CityClock.org:

Jeffrey Tumlin (author of Sustainable Transportation Planning) provides some insight. He notes that when we are walking, we have the ability to communicate with those around us with hundreds of subtle social cues. In a car, we only have two – blinkers and horn. And since they don’t always communicate what you want, people have to bottle the accompanying stress and release it some other way.

Location, location, location

mother in law's house
My mother-in-law's house with that rusting Saturn in the driveway. (Photo: Google Maps)

The problem for many in America is that they live in the suburbs and it's hard to survive without a car. As Jane Gould wrote,

An estimated 70 percent of Baby Boomers live in areas served by limited or no public transit. If Boomers stay in their homes as they age and continue to drive their cars, do they put other drivers and pedestrians at risk?

When I wrote on MNN two years ago that It won't be pretty when boomers lose their cars, I saw transit as the alternative to car ownership; Gould was hoping for self-driving cars. I described how my late mother-in-law had been trapped because she could no longer drive. I thought the suburbs were hopeless.

But since then, the use of e-bikes by boomers and seniors has exploded, and more importantly, the importance of exercise on aging has become far more obvious. Yet another study of older Americans notes that simply walking can make all the difference. According to the Washington Post:

Specifically, the researchers found that those who didn’t get any exercise were 26 percent more likely to die during the study period than were those who walked for less than two hours per week...The finding suggests that doctors “should encourage patients to walk, even if less than the recommended amount, especially as they age, for health and longevity,” the researchers wrote in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. “Walking has been described as the ‘perfect exercise’ because it is a simple action that is free, convenient, does not require any special equipment or training, and can be done at any age,” they wrote.

Giving up the car and walking or biking can literally save your life. And when I go back and look at the walk score for my mother-in-law's house, I find that there are a whole bunch of stores within a mile, within a 30-minute walk, including a big Walmart. I suspect that's true for many suburbs. If you've saved all that money by not owning a car, you can walk one way and take a cab or Uber home.

on a Toronto streetcar
Off to dinner by streetcar last week. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

I'm lucky to live in a streetcar suburb of Toronto, and for almost everything I do, I've given up the keys. Last week I was going to an evening event and was sitting on the fancy new streetcar wondering, why didn't I drive? There's a big lot next to where I was going that would have cost no more than the fares each way. But I was going to have a glass of wine or two and I didn’t want to worry about that. Besides, I really don’t like driving anymore, so I ride my bike, I walk or I take transit.

My hope is that the more I keep doing this, the longer I'll be able to keep doing this. This is obviously not for everyone; many older people have conditions that make it hard for them to walk or bike; my mom had a 30-year-old out-of-warranty artificial knee and every step was painful.

But for the majority of aging boomers, I honestly believe that instead of waiting for someone to take away our car keys, we should be figuring out the alternatives about how to live without a car right now. Just throw away the keys. We will be healthier, wealthier, less stressed and will probably live a few years longer because of it.