Infrastructure & Environment

States Struggle to Identify Disabilities in Older Drivers

Older drivers are keeping their licenses for longer and getting behind the wheel more often than ever before. Should this worry all the other drivers?
by | August 31, 2012
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Explore the topic of aging in America through in-depth stories, data and interactive content at governing.com/generations.

By 2020, one in six drivers on the road is expected to be over the age of 65. Older drivers are also keeping their licenses for longer and getting behind the wheel more often than ever before. Should this worry other drivers? According to motor vehicle and car insurance experts, not necessarily.

“When there’s a really bad crash, they’ll be an outcry to deal with older drivers and I think there’s a tendency to dramatize the problem they cause on the roads,” said Anne McCartt, the senior vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). “But if you compare older drivers to teens, older drivers are not as big a problem to other people on the road.”

Older drivers are involved in more car accidents and more of their crashes are fatal, according to the Insurance Information Institute, but this is due to their increased susceptibility to injury – not necessarily the severity of the crash.

When older drivers have car accidents, it’s usually because they failed to yield to the right of way either because they misjudged whether there was time to go before the other cars or because they failed to see the oncoming car at all.

Nineteen states require older drivers to renew their license more often than younger drivers, and nine states require older drivers to take vision tests when they renew their license. In Maryland, special renewal provisions (which in this case means vision testing) start for drivers as young as 40; while Texans have 85 years before they have to start getting their license renewed more often than younger drivers, according to nationwide data compiled by IIHS and the Highway Loss Data Institute.

According to IIHS, studies show that vision testing older drivers is associated with lower fatal crash rates. But Thomas Manuel, the program director for driver fitness at the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, said that seniors’ vision, which can be corrected, isn’t the problem.

“The issue is that when they [older drivers] lose their cognitive abilities, then they think that they’re okay to drive when really they’re not.” Manuel said. “There’s lots of screening out there for cognitive abilities, but they don’t know how it relates to driving.”

Maryland is one of the only states with research-based cognitive testing for older drivers, according to Manuel. When police officers come across an older driver who may have cognitive disabilities, they notify the state’s medical advisory board and the person is brought in to take more than a handful of scientifically-validated tests that assess their mental and physical abilities. They may be asked to walk a straight line in a certain amount of time or they may be asked to make quick decisions while in a vehicle.

If they fail, boomers have to pay about $300 to see an occupational therapist who specializes in driving. The state might also put restrictions on them such as prohibiting their night or highway driving, according to Manuel.

While Maryland’s cognitive screening process is better than most, it’s still not accurate enough to identify drivers with cognitive impairments before they’re brought to the state’s attention. The AAMVA has been working on changing that.

Though more than half of the states (28 plus the District of Columbia) regulate older drivers in some way, many do not. According to Manuel, this is because “like it or not, the DMV is a political world,” and singling out seniors for shorter renewal periods or additional testing can be construed as discriminatory. Once older drivers feel discriminated against, that may change their vote come election time.

“The object is to keep them on the road as long as they’re safe,” he said. “States don’t want to take licenses away from older drivers because as soon as you take away the keys, it cuts them off from the world.”

Taking older drivers off the roads not only affects them but the economy, according to Manuel. “If you take away their driving, you take away their ability to spend money and that will affect the economy.”

States have varying license renewal laws, with some requiring accelerated renewal for older drivers. Click a state in the map below for each state's requirements. Information was obtained from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and is current as of August.

State License Renewal Laws 

Map Key
 
No accelerated renewal
 
State has accelerated renewal for older drivers

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