Transportation safety: How seniors can maintain independence outside the home

It can be hard to admit your vision isn’t what it used to be, especially when it comes to driving. Maybe you’ve noticed some difficulties reading traffic signals, or you’ve found it challenging to drive at night.

If you’re a family member noticing these warning signs in a loved one, pointing out these challenges may seem like a daunting and delicate undertaking. But when it comes to being on the road, safety is one thing you can’t ignore.

Encouraging your loved one to prioritize safety can be hard, especially when it feels like their independence is at stake. That’s why it’s important to have an open and honest discussion to determine the best options for maintaining independence outside the home.

Step 1: Address driver safety

Vision is the most important sense for driving safety. Annual vision screening is important for everyone, but it is especially critical for older people, since the sensory data used for driving is predominantly visual.

For seniors still able to drive, a defensive driving class can be beneficial. These classes allow students to brush up on skills while gaining confidence and introduce them to alternative transportation options for the times and locations of their preference. What’s more, many insurance companies provide discounts to seniors who complete these courses.

Giving up driving doesn’t have to mean choosing between all or nothing. For example, start limiting driving to daylight only, non-rush-hour periods. Then look into supplementary transportation options that eliminate the need to drive while still allowing you to get where you need to go.

Step 2: Research transportation options

It’s important to educate yourself or your loved one about locally available transportation options for seniors. When you know there are reliable, cost-effective transportation options available, it can help maintain a high level of independence for a trip to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment.

Rides in Sight is a nationwide, online database of senior transportation options built by ITNAmerica, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing sustainable transportation options for seniors. Visit and enter basic information like your state or zip code, and you can find the ride option that’s best for your situation. If you prefer to access information by phone, call 1-855-60-RIDES (1-855-607-4337).

Rides in Sight makes it easy to find customized transportation, no matter what a person’s needs. For example, you can find wheelchair accessible transportation options or door-to-door driver assistance if that’s what you need.

Step 3: Implement a trial period

Giving up the keys is easier if you do it over a period of time. Pick a date and schedule your first ride with a transportation service during a time you normally drive. Any change takes time to adapt to, so try it out for a while before reassessing and making any necessary adjustments. After this trial period, you should feel more comfortable with someone else driving you, and you get to be in control of your mobility.

For older Americans, it’s important to be able to maintain independence when they limit or stop driving. When they are encouraged to create their own driving transition plan, more emphasis can be placed on finding new passions and activities to engage with their communities. The result is a positive impact on people of all ages.

To have that impact, reliable, secure transportation is essential. Having the necessary conversations and researching appropriate transportation options helps keep everyone happy, healthy and safe.

ChORUS: A source of information on highway safety for aging drivers, and more

The Clearinghouse for Older Road User Safety (ChORUS) is a collaborative project of the Roadway Safety Foundation and two leading information technology developers, Syneren Technologies and Bonzzu. Support is provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

ChORUS serves as a centralized, user-friendly source of information on highway safety for aging drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Built as a comprehensive resource, it covers all three major components of highway safety: safe roadways, safe road users, and safe vehicles.

Subject Matter Expert, Kim Snook

Kim Snook was involved as a State representative on the first ChORUS committee when the site was just getting underway. She is now the subject matter expert for all of the site’s content and works in a contracted position with Syneren Technologies.

With her deep knowledge of all types of drivers licensing and senior driver issues, it made sense to involve Kim in the early stages of the website’s development. Her home state of Iowa is one of the most active states when it comes to sharing road safety information other organizations, and it has a high older driver population. After 36 years of service, Kim recently retired from the Iowa Department of Transportation where she served as Director of Driver Services for nine years. Before that she was a manager and did a lot work with young and old drivers, as well as the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) where she was Chair of the Medical Guidelines Review Committee.

Road Safety Resources

“When I was the Director for Iowa’s DOT, I always found it difficult to find information on highway safety for older drivers, so I became very interested in and excited about the ChORUS website,” says Kim. “Now, when I give presentations to other states about the website and how they can use it as a resource, I encourage them to invite law enforcement representatives, public health physicians and caregivers, engineers and city planners, as well as State DMV’s and traffic and safety officials.”

The website is also a comprehensive resource of free training materials for front line DMV’s or their law enforcement agencies. Even if you need to find simple information on knowing what to ask a driver who seems lost and confused out on the highway, you can find it on ChORUS.

“… if you plan to take the keys away from somebody, whether you’re a State DMV official, doctor, caregiver, or family member, you should know your options to be able to present a backup plan.”

ChORUS has resources on a variety of topics that everyone dealing with senior drivers should be aware of. Doctors, for example, have somewhere to go to find out if their state offers a license restricted to driving within a one mile radius from a person’s home. The license of an older person doesn’t need to be completely revoked if their doctor feels they are capable of driving short distances, and knowing what licenses are available could allow an older person to drive themselves to their church, grocery store, or post office.

Planning Ahead

Kim says it’s her mission to keep people driving as long as they’re safely able to do so, no matter what age. She believes that we all need to do a better job and be more closely involved with older drivers, and ChORUS is a great resource that shares the most current highway safety information with everyone. “The goal is to keep people driving as long as they are safe,” says Kim. “But if you plan to take the keys away from somebody, whether you’re a State DMV official, doctor, caregiver, or family member, you should know your options to be able to present a backup plan.”

Survivor of 2003 Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Crash shares her thoughts on senior driver safety issues

Melissa Cronin

In July of 2003 Melissa Cronin of South Burlington, Vermont decided to visit her sister in Santa Monica, California. On the day of her trip, she had a smooth flight and checked into her hotel without a hitch. She had plans to meet her sister later that afternoon, so to pass the time she took a walk to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market.

Melissa had been in Santa Monica for less than an hour before her life changed forever. As she reached for a peach at the busy outdoor market, 86-year-old driver George Russell Weller struck her with his car causing her life-threatening injuries.

Weller had accelerated through several streets that had been closed to traffic and sped two-and-a-half blocks through the market before coming to a stop. He killed ten people and injured 63 others that day, including Melissa. Investigators reported that Weller said he had accidentally placed his foot on the accelerator instead of the brake. At the time of the accident, he held a valid driver’s license issued by the State of California.

After surgeries and many months of therapy, Melissa physically has recovered, but she deals with mental and emotional issues. Before the accident, she worked as a neonatal intensive care nurse. But after being diagnosed with a brain injury, chronic back pain, and later PTSD, it became too difficult for her to keep up with the demanding pace of nursing.

A difficult decision

A few years ago, Melissa’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she knew it was time for him to stop driving. She notes, “He was clearly unsafe to drive, and I began to notice a lot of dents and scratches on his car.”

Melissa was her father’s health care proxy, so she gathered his medical records and sent them to the Registry of Motor Vehicles where he lived to begin the action of taking away his license. She says she ran into a lot of obstacles, and the process, she felt, was more complicated than it needed to be. After her father’s license was finally revoked, she experienced a lot of guilt. She knew it was the right thing to do, but she also struggled with the decision because she knew that his independence was gone.

“At first, I didn’t consider the full social impact and what it would do to his independence or how it would affect him. Now, I see that other side of it, and there’s no clear answer.”

Melissa says that after her accident, every time she saw an older driver who didn’t seem safe on the road, she’d get angry. But after dealing with her dad, she knew firsthand what a difficult decision it is to take someone’s keys away. She says, “At first, I didn’t consider the full social impact and what it would do to his independence or how it would affect him. Now, I see that other side of it, and there’s no clear answer.”

Advocacy and resources

Melissa says you have to be an advocate when it comes to senior driving matters. Alternative transportation is a priority when someone has to hang up their keys. Fortunately, her father had caregivers who could help drive him, but lots of seniors don’t have transportation lined up for when they stop driving.

“. . . you must have a plan in place for how they are going to get groceries, visit their doctor, or participate in any activity that requires leaving home.”

Melissa believes that if someone is capable of driving, of course, they should drive, but she also knows from her time as a nurse that there are physical issues that impact our ability to drive as we get older. “As we age, our reflexes change, we’re slower, and we’re more susceptible to distracted driving.” She adds, “All reasons to be concerned when it comes to being safe on the road.”

She feels we are better informed now compared to ten or twelve years, ago but there’s still much work to do around age and driving issues. “More and more people are writing about older driver safety. There are resources like AARP, National Institute on Aging, AAA, Centers for Disease Control, and national newspapers with columns dedicated to older drivers and the elderly population, and that’s a good thing,” says Melissa.

Perspectives and insights

When Melissa took the car keys away from her father, it was not an easy decision. But going through the process helped her feel a little more compassion towards the man who struck her with his car, and provided her with insight she needed to see the whole picture. “I think it’s important to act if you think a family member or neighbor shouldn’t be driving.” She adds, “I also know it’s an emotional issue that has to be handled with sensitivity, and you must have a plan in place for how they are going to get groceries, visit their doctor, or participate in any activity that requires leaving home.”


Melissa Cronin now works as a contributing writer for her local newspaper and is writing a memoir related to the 2003 Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Crash.

Dr. Gwen Bergen of the CDC on how older adults can remain mobile and be safer drivers

Dr. Gwen Bergen’s personal experiences are what led to her interest in public health. She grew up whitewater kayaking and canoeing and had some friends who were hurt and another who drowned as a result of these activities. What she realized, consequently, is that many fatal and nonfatal injuries are preventable.

She earned her master’s degree in public health at Emory University and went on to obtain a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University where she focused on behavioral science with a concentration in injury. Later, she completed a service fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) in Hyattsville, Maryland. While she was with NCHS, she did injury research studies and used general health data sets to collect injury data and created and published, Injury in the United States: 2007 Chartbook.

Dr. Bergen now serves as a Behavioral Scientist on the Home and Recreation Team in the Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention at CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Before serving in her current position, she was on the Transportation Safety Team for six years. She works to prevent older adult falls, to understand older adult mobility issues, and investigates better sources of surveillance and economic data for unintentional injury.

Retirement Planning and Mobility Exercises

Through her research, Dr. Bergen has discovered some interesting statistics on older adult drivers and she notes that there are no clear tests that tell us when a person needs to stop driving. But she believes as a nation we are starting to move in the direction of doing the research to determine if there are some clear indicators. “It’s not always because older adults are unsafe drivers; it’s because they become frailer as they age, making them more susceptible to injury.” She adds, “The data that surprised me the most from my research since I’ve been in this field is how few options there are for older adults when they stop driving.”

“The data that surprised me the most from my research since I’ve been in this field is how few options there are for older adults when they stop driving.”

So what can we do to ensure that we can remain mobile and safer as older adults? Thankfully, the CDC has a plan in development to address these issues, and Dr. Bergen says they are taking a holistic approach.

“We’re developing a mobility planning tool, aimed at adults who are 60-74 years old to use at the same time they begin planning their retirement.” She adds, “Retirement planning may include where they’re going to live, how they’re going to finance it, and it’s a perfect time to start thinking about how their mobility might change as they age. It’s something we all need to be better prepared for.”

Dr. Bergen also suggests that older adults do these three things on a regular basis to be the best drivers they can be.

  • Daily Exercise: It’s a fact that we become frailer as we age. Falls are the number one cause of injury deaths in older adults, and combined with motor vehicle crashes— both of which are related to mobility — they are the leading causes of injury. Regular exercise can increase strength and can potentially prevent falls to keep older adults driving longer.
  • Review Medications: As people age, they can develop health conditions that require taking a lot of medications, and sometimes these drugs may be too strong for older adults, or the medications may have interactions. Older adults should ask their doctor or pharmacist to review their medications, including prescription drugs, over the counter drugs, and even herbal and natural remedies. It’s always a good idea to make sure that there aren’t any interactions and to see if the dosages may need adjusting to reduce side effects.
  • Yearly Eye Exams: A yearly vision exam is important for older drivers. If cataracts are detected, get them corrected. Make sure glasses and corrective lenses are the right prescription and wear them while driving. If you are restricted to day driving, abide by your doctor’s orders.

Know Your Transportation Options

For older adults who need rides temporarily, or for those who have already made the decision to stop driving, there are transportation options out there. For example, Rides in Sight, a program of ITNAmerica is listed on the CDC website as a resource for those seeking transportation for a variety of reasons.

Dr. Bergen says that after her mother had surgery, which kept her from driving for three months, she went to Rides in Sight to see what was available on the days she wasn’t able to drive her around. “Rides in Sight allows people to find local transportation options quickly.” She adds, “Our choice to list it as a resource on the CDC website came from talking to ITNAmerica, and learning how they continuously update and evaluate the data to make sure it’s the best transportation information they can give.”

“Our choice to list it [Rides in Sight] as a resource on the CDC website came from talking to ITNAmerica, and learning how they continuously update and evaluate the data to make sure it’s the best transportation information they can give.”

Another takeaway from Dr. Bergen’s research is that when older adults stop driving it can lead to social isolation and depression, and maybe even a shortened lifespan. She notes, “I know for adult children the decision to take the car away from their parent is a tough one to make, especially knowing what it does to their independence.” However, these conversations can be easier if you familiarize yourself with the senior transportation options available in your area.

We all need to take the time to educate ourselves about mobility health and safety issues, and with proper planning and the right tools, the transition from driving can be less stressful for older adults and their loved ones.

For more information on Motor Vehicle Safety, please visit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online.