Elderly and the Stereotypes of Driving


Stereotypes about Aging

Ariana Goldman

Colorado State University

Stereotypes are all around us, movies, T.V. shows, magazines, and even music all in some way help to portray stereotypes of every kind. Is some way or another, every day we are susceptible to some form of social media, so it is no wonder that we have all these stereotypes swirling around in our head. Some of the most common targets of stereotypes are the elderly community. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is the perfect example of the stereotypes put on to the elderly community. As a CNA (Certified Nurses Assistant) I work with the elderly on a daily basis and knowing that they are being judged just because of their age is heart breaking.  In this essay I will be addressing one of the more prevalent stereotypes which is that the elderly community can not drive. Driving is a very big symbol of independence, and when someone’s ability to drive is stripped it can have major emotional consequences.

In an article titled “Stereotype Threat Impairs Older Adult Driving” authors Ann E. Lambert, Jason M. Watson, Jeanine K. Stefanucci, Nathan Ward, Jonathan Z. Bakdash and David L. Strayer, they say that sometimes when people know that they are a majority that has a stereotype associated with them they tend to do worse on those tasks than they would if they weren’t aware of the stereotype. They tested their elderly subjects with a computer generated driving simulation with various hazards within the simulation. They found that when there were subtle hints toward the stereotype that older adults were not the best drivers, they were more likely to see the hazards put into place, whereas when there were strong stabs at the stereotype they were less likely to see the hazards. They called this finding a stereotype threat (Lambert, et al. 2015) and they found that these stereotype threats can cause distraction and these distractions can affect the way that the brain processes the information it is receiving. One other factor that comes into play when discussing the elderly and driving is how driving makes them feel. If they are not too concerned with not being able to drive anymore, than they are less likely to fall susceptible to the stereotype of the old driver who should not be driving any more, or the reckless old driver, however to some of the people in the elderly community, driving is something that to them equates freedom, independence, and self-reliance, and when their licenses are taken away or told that they shouldn’t be driving it can make them feel like a burden to their family and friends, as well as take away something that made them who they are. One final thing that was brought up in this article was the idea of working memory capability or WMC which is the ability to be able to fully execute a task while being faced with distractions (Lambert et al. 2015). As we age our WMC slowly becomes less sharp and our ability to handle multiple stimuli weakens as well, which is why it is said that the elderly can not handle driving.

WMC is not the only distraction that has been looked at when determining if the elderly community is capable of driving. A study conducted by Nadina B. Lincoln, Kate A. Radford, Elizabeth Lee, and Alice C. Reay conducted a study to see if elderly people with dementia, which is a disease that effects memory, and challenges in reasoning, were capable of driving. They begin by saying that a majority of the elderly population give up on driving when they begin to show signs of dementia, However the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency guidance (DVLA) say that those who have dementia may still be able to safely drive in their early stages of dementia, but as the disease progresses it is smart for them to give up their license (Lincoln, Radford, Lee, and Reay, 2006). According to Lincoln there are multiple tests that can be done to assess the elderly’s ability to drive, for example assessments of cognitive ability can be used to decipher those who have bad memory, get easily disoriented, and poor judgement (Lincoln, Radford, Lee, and Reay, 2006). In order to test the theory if dementia affects driving,  Lincoln and  her team took 42 elderly people who had been diagnosed with dementia and 33 elderly people who did not have dementia and took them on the road to test them. Their results showed that all of the participants who were clear of dementia passed the driving tests just fine, some of the participants who were diagnosed with dementia dropped so their testing group went down to 27, but out of those 27 people only 10 of them were found to be unsafe to drive ((Lincoln, Radford, Lee, and Reay, 2006), proving again, that just because someone ages that does not make them bad drivers.

So far, most of the studies have talked about brain depletion as a reason that elderly adults should consider the cessation of driving, but this next article written by Ellen E, Freeman MS, Beatriz Munoz MS, Kathleen A. Turano PhD, and Sheila K. West PhD focus on the aging of the eyes and vision function, which I personally think is more important to look at. According to Freeman, Munoz, Turano, and West in order to be able to drive a car the state requires that the driver have at least 20/40 vison to drive unrestricted. In order to test how much of an effect vision change has on driving these researchers took a group of elderly people and tested their vision and then tested it again two years later. The results showed a drastic drop in drivers over the two year period. The participants who discontinued driving were said to have self reported that they were in poor health standing and cognitive impairments, there was also a great decline in vision reported within the two year period (Freeman, Munoz, Turano, and West, 2006). According to the study it seamed that those who knew that their health was decreasing made the decision to stop driving.

The last article “Older adults’ safety perceptions of driving situations: towards a new driving self-regulated scale” written by Karen A. Smith, Simon S. Horswill, Mark &Lurie-Beck, and Janine Karen talks about putting driving self-restrictions on the elderly when it comes to the hours that you are allowed to drive and under what type of weather conditions you are allowed to drive in as well. This follows the idea of WMC that by reducing distractions there is a less likely chance of accidents to occur. This restriction hopes to help the elderly with things like reduced vision at night and during major storms ( Karen A. Smith, Simon S. Horswill, Mark &Lurie-Beck, and Janine Karen. 2011). With putting older drivers in situations where they feel more comfortable they hope that older drivers will be able to keep driving safe for a longer period of time, and keep them from feeling the withdraws that can come from taking driving away from someone who is extremely independent. There has not been too big of a conducted study because this concept is fairly new but the data they do have on this idea is very promising.

After looking at these articles and reading numerous facts, I believe the stereotype that the elderly are bad at driving is a very misguided statement. It all has to do with the brain and the connections that are being made in the brain, it has nothing to do with the person themselves. As l have said before, I am a CNA and work very close with the elderly. I have come to respect them so much after my short time working with them. They bring so much wisdom and have amazing stories to tell and should be treated with the upmost respect. It is easy to get sucked up into believing all the stereotypes we hear and see from the media that is constantly surrounding us, but it is important to remember that just because someone acts different from us or does something we may not quite understand or we thing is annoying, they are no less a human being than we are and should be treated the same way. In kindergarten or maybe even pre school we are taught to treat others the way we want to be treated. When did we stop doing that? When did we stop doing the first thing we were taught to do as children?  If we all start to remember this one simple rule, I do believe that we will be able to cut down and maybe even stop stereotypes from growing more than they already have.


Freeman, E. E., Munoz, B., Turano, K. A., & West, S. K. (2005). Measures of visual function and time to driving cessation in older adults. Optometry & Vision Science82(8), 765-773.

Lambert, A. E., Watson, J. M., Stefanucci, J. K., Ward, N., Bakdash, J. Z., & Strayer, D. L. (2016). Stereotype threat impairs older adult driving. Applied Cognitive Psychology30(1), 22-28.

Lincoln, N. B., Radford, K. A., Lee, E., & Reay, A. C. (2006). The assessment of fitness to drive in people with dementia. International journal of geriatric psychiatry21(11), 1044-1051.

Sullivan, K. A., Smith, S. S., Horswill, M. S., & Lurie-Beck, J. K. (2011). Older adults’ safety perceptions of driving situations: Towards a new driving self-regulation scale. Accident Analysis & Prevention43(3), 1003-1009.


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