Car insurance is important for all ages, but seniors in particular have plenty of reasons to make sure they have the right protection. Older drivers have a lot of experience behind the wheel, but as years go by, they may have increasing difficulties with vision, reflexes, and attention.
As a group, seniors take more precautions than other drivers: they're more likely to use seat belts, drive when conditions are safest, and avoid drinking and driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They're also the least likely to talk on the phone while driving. But the risk of an accident climbs once they reach 70 and is highest after age 85. Read on to find out how to protect yourself as you get older.
Maintaining Your Independence Behind the Wheel
Older drivers get the same basic benefit of driving as anyone else: personal independence. Many seniors find driving to be empowering, as it allows them to take care of their own errands and appointments instead of relying on family members or friends. If a senior citizen lives in a rural or suburban area without public transportation, their continued ability to drive may be the only way for them to get to the doctor or grocery store. Driving can also be crucial to an older person's social life. It's hard to stay in touch with family, friends, and everyone at the golf club if you're stuck at home.
But to keep your license, you may have to take certain tests more often than other drivers once you reach a certain age. In some U.S. states, older drivers have shorter renewal periods for their licenses than younger drivers. This is usually to re-test their eyesight and driving abilities to help determine when they should make the decision to stop driving. Insurance companies take note, too. For example, many companies will offer discounts to older drivers, but only if they have passed a defensive driving course. Keeping track of these rules and benefits can help keep you on the road safely.
The Risks of Driving Without Insurance
Having the right car insurance won't automatically make older drivers better or safer behind the wheel, but it could be one of the best and most important investments they can make. Simply put, driving without auto insurance is a huge financial gamble. Older drivers who cause an accident may find themselves responsible for all of the medical bills and car repairs — the other driver's as well as their own. Uninsured drivers who can't pay the bills and are sued may even have their home or other assets seized.
Evaluate Your Driving Skills
As drivers age, the first signs of diminishing abilities behind the wheel can be small and subtle. Road signs may get blurrier, oncoming headlights may seem brighter, concentration may be harder to hold, and it may become increasingly hard to turn around to check a blind spot. Over time, drivers may notice that it takes them longer to react to other cars, and they may feel increasingly confused in traffic.
Lapses in attention and judgment are the most frequent cause of crashes when seniors are behind the wheel, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. For example, a driver may fail to yield to another car with the right-of-way or may pick the wrong time to merge.
If you've noticed any of these problems, you've probably already asked yourself the crucial question: How much longer should you be driving? There are a few different options available for seniors who want to check their driving skills. The first step could be taking a self-evaluation, like the one in AAA's Drivers 65 Plus brochure. The assessment consists of a few quick questions that can help you determine if you should seek out a doctor for a more comprehensive professional assessment.
Professional driving assessments are generally split into two categories: Driving Skills Evaluations and Clinical Assessments. Driving skills evaluations are in-car evaluations typically done by a specialist that can help identify any weaknesses or issues you face while driving. They don't uncover any deeper medical issues, but they may help determine whether or not you're coming to a point where driving is too risky for you or others on the road. Clinical assessments are done by occupational therapists who can help you find specialized solutions for your individual needs—for instance, they may be able to prescribe equipment that helps you better operate the gas and brake pedals.
Consider taking the following steps for potential discounts on your insurance costs as well as improved safety on the road.
Take advantage of discounts for enrolling in safe driving courses
In many states, car insurance companies are legally required to offer discounts for seniors who complete driving courses. For instance, in Alabama, if seniors complete a classroom-based driving course from State Farm called the Motor Vehicle Accident Prevention Course and are the principal driver of their vehicle, they may be eligible for a certain discount depending on their age. In Colorado, drivers age 55 and older can take an online driver's safety course from Farmers insurance and receive a discount for the next three years.
See if you can get a discount for driving less
Mileage-cap discounts are another possible perk. If you're retired and don't travel far outside your neighborhood, you may be able to find a discount based on the low number of miles you drive. States like California and Alaska offer major discounts based on mileage. If you haven't previously been in a car accident, you'll also be eligible for a safe driver discount with most car insurance companies.
Choose a vehicle with good safety features
The type of vehicle you drive can also have an impact on the price of your car insurance. Auto insurance companies may choose to reward you with a lower premium if you have a vehicle that has certain safety measures, such as anti-lock brakes or automatic seatbelts. Technology-based measures to protect your car, like alarms or car tracking programs, can also save you some cash. It's harder to quantify, but enhanced safety features might also help boost a driver's confidence.
Join an organization
If you're a joiner, you may be eligible for extra insurance discounts. Many insurance companies will offer discounts to members of organizations such as AARP.
Seniors and Driving: By the Numbers
Over 44 million licensed drivers 65 and older and over 28 million licensed drivers age 70 and older are on the road.
Per mile traveled, the rates for fatal car accidents rise after the age of 70.
According to the CDC, some 700 older drivers are injured in car crashes each day.
59 percent of people killed in crashes involving drivers aged 70 and up are the older drivers themselves.
Numerous studies have found that only around 5 percent of older drivers involved in fatal crashes have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher, compared to 20 to 30 percent of drivers between 21 and 64.
Drivers 70 and older typically cover less than half as many miles every year as younger drivers, making some eligible for low-mileage car insurance discounts.
More than 75 percent of drivers age 65 or older report using at least one medication, some of which may influence their ability to operate a motor vehicle.
Low-cost modifications to intersections, like more visible traffic signs or additional turn lanes, have been shown to reduce accidents involving drivers age 65 or older by up to 13 percent.
Family, Friends and Loved Ones: What You Can Do to Help
If you're worried about your family member being on the road, there are many things you can do to help. Here are some suggestions, courtesy of the AAA, AARP, and the Alzheimer's Association:
Express your concern based on things you know to be true. Don't make assumptions, but use specific examples. For instance, did he recently mention getting lost on a route he's driven for years? Have you noticed a dent in his vehicle that he can't explain? Has he been complaining of slower reflexes or decreased hearing? Have you noticed that he drives too slow or too fast when you're riding along? Explain why these things make you nervous.
Rather than trying to take the keys away, offer to help him look into a driving class or evaluation. You can explain that it may help lower the cost of his insurance.
Suggest he bring up the driving issue with his doctor. Doctors will be in the best place to make the decision about a seniors' quality of eyesight or freedom of movement, and they'll be able to make a solid recommendation. It's also a good time to ask about medications that could affect driving.
Offer alternatives that don't limit his independence. Instead of just promising to drive him everywhere, suggest looking at bus schedules or senior vans together or hiring a car service. Nobody wants to feel like a burden on someone else.
Base your conversation around his safety and the safety of others. For instance, reminding him that he often drives with grandchildren in the car will likely make him take a hard look at his abilities.
Remain calm and understanding. Above all, remember that this important conversation will be emotional. Losing the ability to drive is a huge change and will probably bring about deeper anxieties about aging. Remember not to get angry or raise your voice, but continue to speak calmly and call in additional family members for support if need be.
If your loved one has Alzheimer's disease and it has progressed to a point that his doctor has determined he should no longer drive, ask the doctor to write a prescription that says "no driving" and use it to discuss the issue.
As a last resort, if your loved one continues to drive even though his doctor says it is too dangerous, the Alzheimer's Association suggests you hide the car keys, disable the car or hide it - and find him a safe, reliable alternative way to get around.
Insurance and Safe Driving Tips for Seniors
What are some things seniors can do to stay safe on the road? Although none of these tips are guaranteed to eliminate accidents, they're good practices to keep in mind. As an aside, improved safety will lead to fewer blemishes on a driving record, which will translate to lower insurance premiums.
Don't drive in bad weather. If it's raining or snowing outside, call a cab, a family member or a friend. Slippery roads and decreased vision are a dangerous combination.
Consider having a cut-off time, like 7 p.m. or sundown, where you'll no longer drive. Seniors may get tired earlier or struggle to read road signs in the dark. If you're feeling exhausted, don't get behind the wheel.
Consider a new car. Cars with increased safety measures such as power brakes or power steering can help lower your insurance rate and keep you safe. Driving around a clunker, on the other hand, could increase your chance of being in an accident.
Listen to your family and friends if they want to have a conversation about your driving. Remember that their intentions are good: they want to keep you and those around you safe.
If you take any medications, look up the effects they can have on driving.
Consult your doctor about any age-related medical issues you may be experiencing and the impact they can have on your road skills.
Get your eyes tested. If you're having difficulty seeing, there may be an easier solution than giving up driving. Surgery can correct cataracts, or you may just need a stronger prescription for your eyeglasses. Keep your windshields and mirrors as clean as possible.
Refrain from listening to the radio or other music in the car to ensure you'll be focused on the task at hand. You'll also be better able to hear approaching sirens or honking horns.
Consider taking a classroom-based or online skills assessment class or a professional driving assessment.
Stay physically active. Exercise will help you keep your strength and flexibility in tip-top condition.
If you have some memory loss but your doctor still thinks it's okay for you to drive, invest in a GPS to ensure you won't get turned around or confused. If you need to type in an address, make sure to do it before you start driving, or pull over to the side of the road.
Shop around for an insurance policy that has the best coverage for seniors. If you do get into an accident, you want to make sure you're financially protected. Call your insurance provider and ask what you would need to do to receive a senior discount, whether it's driving fewer miles, taking a classroom-based safety course, or simply joining the AARP.
Tamra Johnson is a spokesperson for AAA and an expert on elderly drivers, shared her thoughts on how senior drivers can best adapt to the roads and can know when it's time to stop driving.
How will I know when it's time to stop driving?
Seniors are currently outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of 7 to 10 years. For the first time in history, they must begin planning for "driving retirement" just as they plan for financial retirement.
Normal aging does affect driving, but there isn't a set age to determine when a person is no longer safe behind the wheel. When people become unsafe to drive, it's generally the result of an underlying medical condition or medications, not their age. Three common warning signs that might signify a senior is ready to give up the keys are:
They have been issued two or more traffic tickets or warnings in the past two years. Tickets can predict greatest risk for collision.
They have been involved in two or more collisions or "near-misses" in the past two years. Rear-end crashes, parking lot fender-benders and side collisions while turning across traffic rank as the most common mishaps for drivers with diminishing skills, depth perception, or reaction time.
They've had some falls. Research shows that drivers with a history of falling are 40 percent more likely to be in a crash. Falls limit an older driver's ability to function behind the wheel and can make driving risky for themselves and others on the road.
How long can I drive if I am diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer's?
Driving is a complex, fast-paced activity. A typical driver makes 20 decisions per mile, with less than half a second to respond to changes on the road. Increasing age brings a greater likelihood of having at least one medical condition that could impair safe driving. A diagnosis of dementia doesn't necessarily mean that a person should stop driving right away. The driver should speak to a doctor early and often about their driving abilities. A driver with dementia will eventually become unable to drive when they begin to experience challenges with reaction time and decision making. Below are some key warning signs that dementia is beginning to affect a person's driving ability and it is time to stop driving:
Forgetting how to locate familiar places.
Failing to observe traffic signs and signals.
Becoming angry or confused while driving.
Often hitting curbs while driving.
Confusing the brake and gas pedals.
Forgetting his or her destination during a trip.
How can I adapt my vehicle and behaviors to be a safer driver?
A driver's position in a vehicle is critical when it comes to driving. Proper positioning allows drivers greater steering control, as well as a dramatic increase in vision around their vehicle and down the road. When sitting in their vehicle, older drivers should be sure to adequately adjust their body, headrest, arm positioning, and steering column so they can properly operate their vehicle. AAA and our community partners offer older adults the opportunity to check how well their personal vehicles "fit" them. You can read more about CarFit here.
Many seniors modify their driving activity by driving less or avoiding challenging situations in response to declining abilities like physical or mental health. Older drivers can also limit driving in poor weather conditions or at night to help stay safe behind the wheel.
Below are some helpful resources that may help seniors and their loved ones navigate the world of driving while older.
The DMV Locator can help you find the DMV office in your area.
AARP offers a free online seminar called We Need to Talk that can help family and friends have tricky conversations about driving.
The Alzheimer's Association also offers videos and other materials about talking to your loved one when it's time to stop driving.
AARP offers a class on defensive driving. Check out which states can offer you insurance discounts for taking the class here.
Find out about car insurance requirements in your state through this comprehensive guide provided by the DMV.
AAA offers a Drivers 65 Plus brochure that involves a self-graded driving assessment.
If you or your loved one no longer drives, you can find alternative transportation resources through the Eldercare Locator at www.eldercare.gov or through the Alzheimer's Association Community Resource Finder.