At the end of the drive

Blog post posted on 11/11/19 |
Some conversations are never easy. Telling a close relative that their driving is no longer up to par is certainly one of them. Just figuring out a way to broach the topic is hard enough.

Some years ago I faced this with one of my relatives who was in his eighties. His driving became erratic; he would look left and right at junctions, but didn’t always see that a car was approaching. His judgement of other vehicles’ speeds became poor. He would become confused by lane markings.

We later discovered that he was entering the early stages of dementia, but at that point there was considerable pressure on him to keep driving.  His own pride, fear of giving up independence and a refusal to surrender to old age were all factors of course; no-one wants to accept they are getting too old.

He was the driver of the family as well; although his wife could drive, she had not done so for many years and was now too nervous to resume. The village they lived in had a decent array of shops and a surgery, but the larger supermarkets were ten miles away – he felt he had to carry on driving to maintain their standards and way of life.

He shrugged off any attempt to discuss his driving, insisting that he was fine, made no mistakes or that everyone was exaggerating the ones he did make.  He grew quite angry when I suggested a Mature Driver Review as an impartial option, telling me that I should mind my own business.

A significant problem was that although most of the family had concerns, his wife did not discuss it – possibly for fear of losing her independence as well; I suspect this is not uncommon for other older male drivers in similar circumstances.  All the family could do was try to keep his driving to a minimum by offering to drive them wherever possible, but he did still drive quite regularly.

Eventually the diagnosis of dementia was confirmed. The family doctor was brought into the conversation and informed the DVLA of the diagnosis. They sent a letter telling him he would have to attend an assessment. He accepted my offer to take him for a drive before the assessment “to give him a few pointers”. However, it was pretty obvious to me that he had problems focussing on the business of driving and the assessor in Cardiff agreed. The conversation after the drive was handled very well and my relative agreed that it was time to hang up the car keys.

My relative has since died – all this happened about ten years ago, but problem continues for many families.  Old age is not a reason to stop driving; the IAM RoadSmart Mature Driver Review show that. Neither is dementia or any other illness. Losing the ability to drive safely is the only reason someone should be compelled to give up driving.  How the topic is raised must depend on the individual and the family dynamics.

An independent assessment will often be the answer, which is why the Mature Driver Review has an increasingly important role. The family doctor can help where there are specific medical conditions such as failing eyesight or mental or physical impairment, and they are obliged to report such conditions if the patient refuses their advice to give up driving.

One thing the experience has made me do is to think about my own driving future. I love driving; over half a century I must have covered several million miles, across the UK, Europe, Africa and the USA. I’ve driven everything from trucks to mopeds.  How will I face up to the time my sight begins to fail or some other ailment means I’m no longer safe behind a wheel? What are the alternatives?

Well, lots it seems. Thanks to the internet, virtually anything I want to buy can be delivered to my door, banking is all online, NHS 111 can give medical advice and help.  Of course, isolation is not good for mind or body, so when I want to get out and about there is a free bus service, albeit infrequent, a local volunteer car lift scheme has started, electric push bikes are coming down in price all the time and of course there’s the ubiquitous mobility scooter – it all depends on what has made me stop driving.

Alternatively, maybe I need to move into a town rather than being in a village a couple of miles away.  I also need to encourage my wife to do some of the driving on family trips – it’s far too easy for one person in a couple to be the driver all the time and the result can be a loss of confidence for the one who’s usually the passenger.

Rather than leave things until I am forced to find alternatives, I want to try them out now, while I don’t need to. I’ll give the bus a go, I’ve already tried the trains and a taxi and I’ve put my name on the list to be a volunteer driver.

Of course it will be a wrench if I have to give up driving, but some planning and practice will make that conversation so much easier for my family to have with me. In fact, I genuinely hope that if the time comes, I’ll already be using the alternatives and the car will be an optional extra which I can give up without loss of lifestyle or independence.
Here’s hoping!

By Tim Shallcross, IAM RoadSmart Head of Technical Policy & Advice

For further guidance on the issues surrounding driving in later life, visit our older driver campaign page at