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Should Older Drivers Face Special Restrictions?

| January 2, 2017

Older drivers, like younger drivers, can pose dangers on roads. But should they be regulated differently? (montillon)

By 2030, more than 60 million older adults could be driving on the nation’s roadways. But don’t expect many more states to put added restrictions on their ability to get behind the wheel.


Legislatures have become increasingly reluctant to restrict driver’s licenses for seniors or impose extra requirements — such as vision or road tests — for getting them renewed based solely on their advancing age.

That’s partly because older people are generally considered safe drivers, more programs exist to improve their driving skills, and recent studies have shown that many of the restrictions aren’t as effective as once thought in preventing traffic fatalities. It’s also because a politically powerful group of advocates for seniors and motorists, such as AARP and AAA, argue that age shouldn’t be used as the sole measure of an older person’s fitness to handle a car.

“We believe that driving is about the ability and health of the driver, not their age,” said AARP spokeswoman Kristin S. Palmer. “We can’t stereotype older drivers.”

Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents highway safety offices, said another reason many legislatures have not passed age-based restrictions lately is that society has changed the way it defines “old.” Being 75 isn’t what it used to be, because people are more active and live longer than previous generations.

“We just elected the oldest president ever,” Adkins said, referring to Republican President-elect Donald Trump, who is 70.

Many states place some sort of restrictions on seniors when it comes to renewing their driver’s licenses, whether it’s requiring vision screening, making them renew their licenses more frequently, or demanding they show up in person at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew their licenses. But most of the restrictions were approved at least several years ago.

In recent years, efforts to impose restrictions often failed. Legislatures in more than a dozen states considered legislation affecting older drivers in the last two years, but only a handful of bills passed, none of them controversial.

And some enabled more people to get licenses or gave them breaks based on their age. For instance, a measure in South Carolina allows people with certain vision problems to get or renew a license if they use a special device on their glasses. One in New Mexico lowered the eligibility age to 50 for drivers to qualify for reduced insurance rates if they take a driver’s education course.

In contrast, Vermont lawmakers killed a bill that would have demanded drivers 65 and older pass vision and road tests in order to obtain or renew their license. Tennessee lawmakers killed one that would have required people 76 and older to take a vision test.

But the fact remains as people age, their vision, hearing and reflexes often deteriorate. And states are faced with trying to balance ensuring the safety of older drivers and others on the road with not discriminating against people just because they are getting older.

“Age should not be the issue. It should be your ability to handle the car and drive safely,” said Jurek Grabowski, research director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research and education group.

Patterns and Risks

The nation’s senior population is projected to explode as 75 million baby boomers grow old. And traffic safety experts expect the number of at-risk drivers will also grow, as all indications are aging boomers who grew up behind the wheel want to continue to drive.

In the early 1970s, barely half of Americans 65 and older held a driver’s license. Nowadays, 84 percent do. By many measures, they have a good driving safety record.

Seniors typically follow the rules and wear seat belts, observe the speed limit, and don’t drink and drive, auto safety analysts say. Their crash rates have continued to drop over the years. And they are less likely than previous generations of seniors to be in a crash or to be killed or seriously injured in a crash because they’re generally healthier and cars are safer.

But older drivers are at higher risk of crashing than middle-aged people because of declining vision, hearing and cognitive ability and medical conditions that could affect their driving. When they are involved in a crash, they are more likely to be injured or killed than drivers in other age groups.

stateline logo analysis“Usually, if someone dies, it’s the older driver or their passengers, who tend to be older,” said Jessica Cicchino, a vice president at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by auto insurance companies.

In 2014, 5,709 people 65 and older were killed and about 221,000 were injured in crashes.

Older drivers also are more likely than younger ones to be involved in certain types of collisions, such as crashes at intersections or those caused by failing to yield, according to the Insurance Institute.

Good or Bad Policies

States vary considerably in what they require of older drivers to renew a license.

Nineteen have shorter renewal periods for drivers over a certain age, according to the Insurance Institute. Eighteen demand more frequent vision screening. And 15 states that allow drivers to renew by mail or online don’t offer that option to older drivers.

Illinois has one of the strictest renewal requirements of any state. Drivers 75 and older must take a road test to renew their license. It’s the type of law that AAA opposes.

“Many states have bills introduced seeking that. We spend a lot of time combating it,” said Jake Nelson, AAA’s traffic safety director. “It’s bad policy and it doesn’t enhance safety at all.”

Many age-based requirements haven’t proven effective, studies have found.

Only two have been shown to reduce fatal crashes: making drivers 85 and over renew in person and requiring people in that age group to take a vision test in states that don’t make them renew in person, said Cicchino of the Insurance Institute. Fatality rates for drivers 55 and older are no lower in states that mandate road or written tests or shortened renewal periods for older drivers, she said.

Some states, such as Alabama and Kentucky, impose no age-based requirements on older drivers. Others actually give them a break. Oklahoma, for example, reduces the license fee for drivers age 62 to 64 and waives it entirely for those 65 and older.

Some groups that oppose putting restrictions on older drivers based solely on their age endorse broader policies aimed at improving safety on the roads. AAA, for example, thinks all drivers should take a vision test when they renew, either at a DMV or at a doctor’s office. And it views the renewal process as a good way for DMV staffers to observe drivers to see whether they may have physical or mental impairments that could affect their driving ability.

“This isn’t about senior drivers, it’s about detecting at-risk drivers,” said Rich Romer, AAA’s state relations manager.

For seniors who might be a danger on the roads because of certain physical or mental conditions, both AAA and AARP support the concept of medical advisory boards that set standards for state licensing agencies and assess at-risk drivers’ ability to get behind the wheel. At least 38 states have set up some kind of advisory board.

“If you come to our attention and you should not be on the road, we have a process to get you off the road very fast,” said Dr. Carl Soderstrom, the chief of Maryland’s Medical Advisory Board. “The fact that we have taken the licenses away from thousands of very unsafe people over the years says the program is working.”

Independence Daze

Driving is an important way for older adults to remain independent and mobile, experts on aging say. Without a car, they can grow isolated and depressed, and their physical and mental health can deteriorate.

Instead of driving themselves, some may turn to taxis or ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, or eventually, self-driving cars. Others may rely on volunteer driver programs or public transit.

“We want to get away from the idea of taking away mom and dad’s keys and focus on other alternatives to keep them mobile,” said Adkins, of the governors’ highway safety group. “But you also don’t want to take away their mobility and independence if they could be driving safely.”

AAA and AARP have created driver refresher classes for older adults to help them stay safe on the roads.

AARP’s “Smart Driver Course,” offered in classrooms or online, teaches strategies for reducing the likelihood of a crash and making adjustments to compensate for the effects aging may have on driving. The group runs about 30,000 courses a year and trains about half a million drivers, said Palmer, the group’s spokeswoman.

At least 34 states plus Washington, D.C., have passed laws allowing auto insurance companies to provide a premium discount to seniors who complete a state-approved driver safety course in a classroom.

A number of advanced technologies, such as collision warning systems and rearview cameras, also can help seniors drive safely for a longer period of time, a 2015 AAA Foundation report found.

But all the bells and whistles on new cars can be a distraction for some older drivers.

That’s why auto safety groups also recommend that transportation agencies take action on their own, by making letters on road signs larger, making pavement markings more visible, and adding left-turn lanes and signals at intersections. Another possibility: reconfiguring intersections as roundabouts, which reduce speeds and eliminate the complexities of turning at intersections.

“These are simple fixes to the roadways that states actually can make that can prevent older drivers’ deadliest crashes,” said the Insurance Institute’s Cicchino.

–Jenni Bergal, Stateline
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29 Responses for “Should Older Drivers Face Special Restrictions?”

  1. Jon Hardison says:

    I’d say that if driving is a privilege and not a right, as most states contend, then the responsibility of road safety management falls squarely on the states. In all honesty, that’s a reality these elected officials need to start to face. States enjoys significant income from tickets and other efforts based on enforcement but do little to nothing if it infringes on a politician’s ability to get votes.

    All that said, this is a place where insurers probably hold the answer.
    Things being as they are the best way forward would be a voluntary option, specifically for seniors that came with a state mandated discounts for any senior that opted to submit to additional regulations (which would be zero cost). Likewise there should be protections for seniors that don’t pass those test including but not limited to a privacy guarantee for test results.

    But all this would be easier if we’d just accept that we lose things as we get older.
    (I’m so sick of all this political correctness.) HA HA HA!

  2. Richard Smith says:

    OK…..this will be a very controversial subject and should get many opinions and views. I am 72 and recognize that my reaction time, hearing and driving ability has diminished since I first got my license at age 17 in New York. I have had a driver’s license in New York, California, Alaska and now will be getting one in Florida this year. After spending a significant amount of winters in Florida this state has by FAR the worst senior drivers around. I have to constantly drive defensively not only making sure of how I am driving but also everyone around me and those entering an intersection from another direction. I can’t tell you the number of times I have observed senior drivers not looking when backing out of a shopping center parking space, not looking or stopping to make sure they can safely turn right on red, change lanes abruptly, make a right-hand turn from three lanes over when they should have been in the right-turn-only lane and the list goes on and on. I spent 16 years of my life and career in southern CA and I can truthfully say that the seniors out there know how to drive. Plus once you reach a certain age CA requires you to not only take a vision test BUT a road test which includes driving on their high-speed freeways.

    Florida needs to reevaluate their senior driving requirements and I would bet that a significant number of licenses would be revoked.

    I am not looking forward to the day when I have to turn in my drivers license but I would not be able to live with myself if I had caused a persons death due to my inability to drive correctly and safely. That day will come and when it does I will find alternative ways to get around safely.

  3. Flagler Citizen says:

    We really don’t have a lot of transportation options for seniors or even for others who cannot drive. At the county level, we’ll really need to keep an eye on our population, the growth, and the demographics in terms of planning for public transit. I’ve encountered a great number of people from out of state inquiring about public transit for their aging parents, and I’ve also met a lot of seniors who themselves recognize that driving is becoming increasingly more difficult. Before we consider restrictions, we need to consider what options people have. Here in Flagler, we don’t necessarily live in a pedestrian-friendly community.

  4. Flatsflyer says:

    I’ve been to three (3) different Countries this year and rental car companies refuse to rent to anyone over 70 years old. My wife is 68, guess our world traveling will take a bit in a couple of years. We generally stay in places like Ecuador and Mexico for a month at a time and even though they have much better public transportation than the US, it would be almost impossible without a car.

  5. The Ghost of America says:

    Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, absolutely.

  6. Barbara Kipnis says:

    Coming from Illinois, with the “strictest” renewal requirements, I am completely in favor of them! After 75, Illinois requires an “in-person” renewal with written and vision test. After 80, renewals are for two years instead of 4, and after 87, they are annual. After 80, road tests are required. I couldn’t persuade my 90 year old father to stop driving – but he said he’d stop when he failed his test. He failed, his license wasn’t renewed, and I avoided the “you’re taking away my independence” argument that so many children have with their older parents. My daughter in Georgia was in a fatal crash when an 85 year old driver, who had been “advised” not to drive, made an illegal left turn across traffic into the wrong side of a divided highway. His wife, the passenger, was killed when my daughter’s car, doing the speed limit and with a green light, t-boned the passenger side. The investigators blamed the crash 100% on the senior driver. Perhaps written, road, and vision tests, like the ones in Illinois, could have saved a life.

  7. Ken Dodge says:

    When I die, I want to go peacefully like my grandfather did – in his sleep. Not yelling and screaming like the passengers in his car.

  8. Jon Hardison says:

    Ken Dodge: LOL!!!

  9. tulip says:

    Even if we had transportation, how does a senior GET to the bus stop? And how do they get home after being dropped off? Buses stop in various places, so that leaves the seniors to walk the rest of the way to their destination, doctor, shopping, activities etc. Not easily done in hot, or rainy weather or if a person is physically unable to walk too much.

    It would be nice if there was a special senior taxi service that could provide pick up directly from home and drive directly to the place they want to go and do it at a very reasonable price.

    It would be great if pharmacies had delivery service for prescriptions, etc. and the same with supermarkets at a very nominal fee.

    Seniors have errands and banking and many other activities just like the younger ones do, so a car is essential.

    Yes I have seen seniors do “dumb things” but I also see more younger people texting while driving, putting on makeup, running stop signs and red lights, speeding, dui, “high” on something, and many other things that are far more dangerous.

    Until we have a reliable way to help our seniors who don’t drive get around and have a relatively normal existence, we will have to rely on vision testing and checking his or her driving record.

  10. Sherry says:

    We should also be discussing distracted driving, especially by those who are texting. . . and, they are not normally the retirees. . . Take a read:http://stoptextsstopwrecks.org/tagged/facts?gclid=CMK_wOq1pNECFQwXgQodT-cGXA

    Here’s more great statistical information on drivers of all ages: http://stoptextsstopwrecks.org/tagged/facts?gclid=CMK_wOq1pNECFQwXgQodT-cGXA

    What we really need is a greater push towards self driving cars. . . can’t wait. . . . because Florida, with maybe the highest percentage of elderly folks in the USA. . . has extremely little in the way of “public transportation”. . . which is a disgrace!

  11. Jon Hardison says:

    Certainly not discounting the importance of addressing distracted drivers but I think that’s a separate discussion. Public Transport? That’s connected in a great many ways but distracted drivers is, for the most part, solved. We just need far better and far more aggressive enforcement. A larger fleet of unmarked, off-brand cruisers would fix that in a heartbeat.

    With elderly drivers, the it’s about safely. Both road safety and personal safety for those that have been deemed incapable of safely piloting themselves around.

    I know the question of public transport has come up at the county level before, but I think it’s time we take a long, lard look at the larger questions. We have a fleet of school busses that spend most of their time off. There are many people that would prefer a well executed public transport solution over driving too and from work. Not to mention public transport’s great potential to positively impact road safety by reducing the number of impaired drivers on the road.

    This may not be the right time to do it, financially speaking, but I think it’s time the county got a plan on paper for the future. We will have to do this at some point. Might as well start addressing it now.

  12. Sw says:

    Sorry but from what I’ve experienced the whole bunch of you all need to be restricted.

  13. Born and Raised Here says:

    More and more Seniors are moving to our State, and they are not familiar with our traffic laws or roads. Therefore I think Senior Drivers should be required to take a driving, vision, and written test every 5 years starting at 65 years old.

  14. Dave says:

    Get the Uber app if you need a ride.. I’m pretty sure technicaly by the constitution ,none us even need drivers licenses. It’s our right not a privilege.

  15. palmcoaster says:

    Yeah restrict the teens and middle age and all below seventy texting or in their phones and gadgets while driving…I was driving my SUV 3 years ago and was stopped in a red light in PC Pkwy and the guy behind me drove into my big strong rear Ford Explorer bumper we both got of our cars and my big strong bumper didn’t even have a scratch but his Asian sedan had its front busted! We exchanged DL’s , insurance info and the whole enchilada as usual but he said,- I am not calling my insurance ..to what I replied,- cause I bet you were texting right? He didn’t reply to that but he said if I was calling my insurance he was willing to pay me any damages and gave my his ph #. Told him that will cost him his repairs while I didn’t need any…And I left it at that…told him he was lucky so far and drove away with all his info while he had mine…never heard back from that guy…why…because he was texting!! I was and elderly and he was a middle age man. So tell me who is more hazardous in these roads. I sure do not see any elderly texting at the wheel…or driving with the elbow while drinking coffee or eating their whoopers and fries while texting, or drag racing as can be heard every day around us , simple is, because we elderly need all our attention to the traffic. You all need to stop the destructive critique of the elderly!
    Jeez so many well to do hate the poor and now also bash the elderly driving?

  16. r&r says:

    Cell phones and texting are the biggest hazards on the road.

  17. DaveT says:

    All drivers above the age of 70 should be re-tested, a handbook test and an actual drivers test with a Fla Highway Patrol driving examiner.

  18. 20 something F PC says:

    “We want to get away from the idea of taking away mom and dad’s keys and focus on other alternatives to keep them mobile,” said Adkins, of the governors’ highway safety group. “But you also don’t want to take away their mobility and independence if they could be driving safely.”

    – No one said anything about taking mom and dad’s keys away, but if they are going to be a danger on the road by either being visually impaired or with longer reflex times then YES take their freaking keys away. There have been too many close calls with older people in MY experience on the road where the only thing that saved me from being hit was my own quick reflexes. Make them test on not only vision but reflexes as well. If you are able to pass these tests then no problem, you can still drive.

    That’s why auto safety groups also recommend that transportation agencies take action on their own, by making letters on road signs larger, making pavement markings more visible, and adding left-turn lanes and signals at intersections. Another possibility: reconfiguring intersections as roundabouts, which reduce speeds and eliminate the complexities of turning at intersections.

    -This statement is RIDICULOUS. Since the roundabouts in town center have worked out so well. No one in Palm Coast knows the proper procedure. And if someone needs larger font on a sign THAT WORRIES ME. Maybe they shouldn’t be behind the wheel.

  19. happening now says:

    If Fl changes law, will gladly take test. The public transportation has been on the county agenda before, and no, not yet. However, as I am about to go about my day, I say a prayer as the very fact that Flagler County is NOT one big freeway where you can drive like a bat out of hell only to get first to the next red light. You dare not to look or say, as who is carrying what and what would they do with ? Yes, public transportation needs a good looksee.

  20. Jon Hardison says:

    palmcoaster: I understand your frustration over this conversation. It’s that frustration that helps prevent a sensible conversation / solution to the issue. I agree that distraction is the most serious issue on our roads today, not the elderly, but here’s the problem:

    The roads are changing. Drivers ARE distracted and all trends point to an increase in speed limits in the future. The two groups most at risk in this new environment are our youngest drivers, like my 16 year old son, and our oldest drivers who may not have the vision or reflexes needed to predict and avoid bad situations.

    This isn’t anger toward the elderly. It’s concern.
    We need to address these concerns in a way that doesn’t infringe on your freedom, mobility or pocketbook.

  21. DaveT says:

    We took our mothers keys from her last year. Mom (84) has the early stages of Dementia not to mention she requires a cane to walk, Mom can drive, its not that she doesn’t know the laws of the road, as she drives pretty good, but her reaction times are not what they used to be and she finally understands. It was tough and places new responsibilities on her family. But, I would rather see my mom, safe and not in harms way or her causing harm to others on road.

  22. jonsey says:

    Uber fits that bill…

  23. Sherry says:

    Regarding texting while driving. . . please note, the current Florida law does NOT make it a PRIMARY offense to put everyone at high risk by texting while driving. When I see people driving dangerously, weaving, almost running into others, almost hitting bicyclers/pedestrians. . . 9 times out of 10 they have a phone in their hand!

    Yet. . . law enforcement has their hands tied because, believe it or not. . . “texting” is only a SECONDARY offense in Florida . . . therefore the problem is far from being solved. . . take a read:

    http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/editorials/editorial-make-texting-while-driving-a-primary-offense/2279321

  24. JasonB says:

    Then why place restrictions on drivers who are 15 and 16 years old, isn’t that discrimination based on age? Oh yeah …. they can’t vote.

  25. Jon Hardison says:

    JasonB: …or drive. They’re terrible.
    But they have no experience, so they should be terrible.
    It’s not the same.

    Sherry: If the Sheriff’s office gave me an unmarked cruiser I’d write tickets all day. ALL DAY!
    I’ve gotten out of my car and screamed at people for it. I’ll never forget watching a mother doing it in a school zone while dropping off er kids. When I walked up to her car there were another two kids in the car.
    I just kept saying, “IS IT WORTH IT? WHATEVER IS ON THE PHONE RIGHT NOW… IS IT WORTH IT?”

    It’s infuriating.

  26. Sherry says:

    Jon. . . have I told you lately that I just love you. . . Happy New Year to one of our most important and fabulous voices out there!

  27. Jon Hardison says:

    Awww! <3 <3 <3 You're too sweet, really.
    Happiest of New Years to you too. (I'm blushing)

  28. happening now says:

    Ditto Jon!!

  29. THE VOICE OF REASON says:

    I recently moved to Missouri and it is MORE restrictive than Illinois!

    At 64, I renewed easily, only a vision test (which has been required from every state I have ever had a license in.) But when it’s time to renew in 2023 I will be 71 and the whole ballgame changes.

    At 70 or older you must renew in person, and it is every three years instead of the six years this license is good for. There’s a vision test, and if it wants to, the state can require you to go to an eye doctor at your own expense to get it. In addition, nearly anyone (government officials, health workers, even your grandkid) can file paperwork with the state saying they fear you’re an unsafe driver.

    If that is done (or the state decides for any other reason to require it) you must take a written and road test.

    There’s also a laundry list of other things the state can require. Among them are restricting you to daylight driving, maximum speed of 45 mph and maximum radius of 25 miles from home.

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