Hanging Up the Keys: When and How to Make the Decision

"Sometimes I feel trapped," said Betty Cleeves, 89. "If my eyes were okay, today, I'd get in that car, take off and go as far as the gas would take me."

It's a part of life most of us take for granted.

To others, driving is freedom, but what happens when holding onto that freedom for too long puts others at risk.

Back in August, an 89-year-old man died after going the wrong way on I-96 and last December, an 82-year-old woman clipped two cars in Meridian Township. Those are just a couple examples of accidents involving the elderly.

89-year-old Loyal Dean, who lives at Edgewood Retirement Center in Lansing, has heard the stories and that's why he takes the precautions.

"I don't drive long distances and I don't drive at night," he said.

But since his wife voluntarily gave up her own license, two years ago, driving is the only way for Dean to escape their retirement home.

"It gets us away from that feeling of being bound down," he said.

It's the same for Fred Colwell, who, at 95, still gets behind the wheel.

"It gives me an opportunity to get out of here," he said.

When it comes to giving up, or taking away, the keys, the question is, when?

The Office of Highway Safety Planning says young drivers have the highest crash rating, with 13 percent of licensed 18-year-olds getting in accidents, last year. At the same time, only around three percent of those 65 and older were involved in crashes, a number that could reflect reduced driving, but still, the lowest of any age group.

That's why Lt. Tom Kish of Michigan State Police says the decision to stop driving shouldn't be based age.

"It depends on the lifestyle," he said. adding the driver should be able to turn their head at an intersection and be able to see cars in their rear-view mirror. Of course it's not always simple.

"Driving is a privilege, it's not a right," said Lt. Kish. "If someone's driving privileges or behaviors aren't satisfactory, then sometimes we have to take those privileges away."

For State Police, it's three accidents in two years before older drivers are told to be reexamined by Secretary of State. In Michigan, doctors can also notify the Secretary of State's office if they think someone shouldn't be behind the wheel.

It's been a little more than a year since 89-year-old Betty Cleeves' doctor told her, 'no more driving'.

"I didn't fight it," said Cleeves. "I understood why because I had the slight heart attack and because of my eyes. I'm not seeing well at all."

It was a necessary decision that's been tough to deal with.

"Sometimes I feel trapped," she said. "If my eyes were okay, today, I'd get in that car, take off and go as far as the gas would take me."

That trapped feeling makes handing over the keys, or asking for them, a really big decision. A human development professor at Michigan State University, Larry Schiamberg says an older person's physical, mental and social health are all potentially at stake.

"Think for a minute about not having access and the consequences of that," he said. "Sometimes that isn't a thought in peoples' minds because they have a license sometime around adolescence or late adolescence. The importance of driving is built into someone's lifestyle."

If someone is told to stop driving, Schiamberg says it's important for family members to ensure they will still be able to get places.

"Removal of a driver's license is a very serious issue for an older adult," he said.

But it's an issue that everyone has to deal with at some point.


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