State Licensing Policies on Older Drivers

With the number of older Americans on the nation's roads on the rise, some states have turned to driver's license renewal policies to ensure that seniors remain fit to drive. But states seeking to adopt such policies often face opposition from senior citizen lobbying groups and must carefully weigh questions related to physician reporting, costs of new testing procedures and regulations and the efficacy of the policies in actually improving safety.

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The number of older Americans on the nation’s roads is the rise.

  • The first members of the baby boom generation began turning 65 in 2011.1
  • The number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to more than double by 2050.2
  • Sixteen percent of licensed drivers in the U.S. are 65 or older today. By 2025, that number is expected to increase to 20 percent.3
  • By 2030, the number of drivers older than 85 will be four to five times what it is today.4
  • According to a 2003 study, 79 percent of seniors age 65 and older live in car-dependent suburban and rural communities.5
While not an absolute predictor of driving ability, a person’s age can bring with it diminishing physical and/or capabilities that can contribute to unsafe driving.
  • Although drivers 65 and older account for 8 percent of all miles driven, they comprise 17 percent of all traffic fatalities.6
  • Eyes change with age, losing the ability to focus quickly. Peripheral vision narrows and the retina becomes sensitive to light. Impaired vision can lead to poor judgment in making left turns, drifting within the traffic lane and a decreased reaction time to unexpected or rapidly changing traffic situations.
  • Older drivers may be impacted by medications that can impair their driving by making them drowsy or distracted. Physical disabilities, mental illness and frailty also can make them unfit to continue driving.7
  • The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, known as the IIHS, reported in 2010 that while the number of seniors 70 and older with a driver’s license increased from 73 percent in 1997 to 78 percent in 2008, fatal passenger vehicle crashes per licensed driver in this age group fell 37 percent in the same period. For drivers 80 and older, the fatal crash rate fell by almost half. Rates of less severe crashes reported to police officers were down as well.8
  • While the IIHS expressed concern at the beginning of the last decade about the risks presented by a growing proportion of senior drivers, the statistics would indicate that a problem hasn’t yet emerged.9
    • The reasons for this may include an improvement in older people’s health and physical conditioning that could be reducing their risk of crashing and helping them fare better when they do crash. Older people also may be doing a good job of policing themselves to determine whether their faculties are impaired and when they need to curtail or stop driving, the IIHS said.10
State driver’s licensing renewal policies may be able to reinforce these self-imposed limitations and help maintain traffic safety as the number of seniors on the highways continues to  increase.
  • Nineteen states have a provision on the length of time required between license renewals for older drivers. In other states, licensing agencies have the authority to shorten the  renewal cycle for individual license holders if their condition warrants.11
  • Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have additional requirements for older drivers.12
  • Renewal policies can provide for shorter periods between renewals for drivers older than a designated age, typically 65 or 70; require older drivers to renew their licenses in person rather than electronically or by mail; and require vision or road tests not routinely required of younger drivers upon renewal.13
  • State licensing agencies may require renewal applicants to undergo physical or mental  examinations or retake standard vision, written and road tests if a person’s fitness to drive is in doubt because of their appearance or demeanor at renewal, history of crashes or  violations, or reports by physicians, police or others.14
  • Licensing agencies may allow the person to retain his or her license, refuse to renew the license, or suspend, revoke or restrict the license. Typical restrictions can include  prohibiting driving at night, requiring the vehicle to have additional mirrors, or limiting driving to specified places or a limited radius from the driver’s home.15
  • States can enact laws that allow for voluntary or mandatory reporting of impaired drivers by physicians or others, with provisions for legal immunity and/or anonymity.16
The jury is still out on whether some license renewal policies actually improve safety.
  • A 2010 American Medical Association Physician’s Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers notes that some research has brought into question the efficacy of both shorter licensure renewal periods and screening during the renewal process in reducing crash risk. The guide notes:
  • Testing procedures and regulations can impose significant costs to states.
  • In cases where licenses are revoked, the testing procedures can increase inconvenience and costs to older drivers, their families and caregivers.
  • Older adults who lose their driving privileges face restricted mobility and loss of many out-of-home activities, which may decrease social connectedness.
  • Policymakers must carefully weigh these societal burdens against the actual added value or benefits to improved public safety.17
  • The AARP and other senior citizen lobbying groups have opposed some state efforts to toughen licensing requirements for older drivers. Those groups contend age-based measures are discriminatory and that chronological age is not an accurate predictor of driving ability. They’ve argued that if seniors are forced to take mandatory road tests in the absence of an incident, other age groups should be required to take them as well.18
  • Some states’ licensing laws specifically prohibit licensing administrators from treating seniors differently because of their age. The District of Columbia’s law states that an  applicant shall not be required to retake the written or road test based solely on advancing age. Laws in Maryland and Nevada state that age alone is not grounds for re-examination of drivers, but applicants for an initial license age 70 and older must provide proof of previous satisfactory operation of a vehicle or physician’s certificate of fitness.19
  • Given the challenges faced by older adults who have their driving privileges restricted or denied, states also should have policies to help them remain mobile. Such policies are the subject of the second brief in this series.

REFERENCES

 2 Ibid.
 3 The Road Information Program (TRIP) and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). “Keeping Baby Boomers Mobile: Preserving the Mobility and Safety of Older Americans.” February 2012. 
 4 National Caregivers Library. “Transportation and the Elderly.” 
 5 Rosenbloom, Sandra. “The Mobility Needs of Older Americans: Implications for Transportation Reauthorization.” Brookings Institution. 2003. 
 6 TRIP and AASHTO.
 8 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Status Report. "Vol. 45, No. 6. June 19, 2010. 
 9 Ibid.
 10 Ibid.
 11 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Older drivers: licensing renewal provisions.”
October 2011. 
 12 Ibid.
 13 Ibid.
 14 Ibid.
 15 Ibid.
 16 American Medical Association. “Physician’s Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers.” 2010. 
 17 Ibid.
 18 Smart Motorist.
 19 IIHS. “Older drivers: licensing renewal provisions.”