Older drivers face confusing array of license laws

Utah among the states trying to find ways to spot at-risk drivers

By Lauran Neergaard

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 11:04 p.m. MDT

In Washington, D.C., starting at age 70, drivers must bring a doctor's certification that they're still OK to drive every time they renew their license.

New Mexico requires annual renewals at 75.

Geographic variability makes little sense, said Jake Nelson, AAA's director of traffic safety advocacy and research. "Either I'm safe to drive or I'm not. Where I live shouldn't matter," he said.

Yet when Iowa drivers turn 70, they must renew their license every two years instead of every five. Neighboring Missouri lets the 70-year-olds renew every three years instead of every six.

Some states introduce age requirements after high-profile accidents. Massachusetts now requires drivers to start renewing licenses in person at age 75, with proof of an eye exam. The change came after an 88-year-old driver struck and killed a 4-year-old crossing a suburban Boston street in 2009.

This summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a national guideline for older driver safety that, if finalized, would push states to become more consistent. Among the recommendations: Every state needs a program to improve older driver safety; doctors should be protected from lawsuits if they report a possibly unsafe driver; and driver's licenses should be renewed in person after a certain age, tailored to each state's crash data.

Still, many states say their main focus should be on inexperienced teen drivers and problems such as texting behind the wheel.

"Teens are risk takers. Our older drivers are risk avoiders," said Alabama state Rep. Jim McClendon. Alabama drivers renew licenses every four years, with no older age requirements.

New Hampshire last year stopped requiring road tests when 75-year-olds renewed their licenses. The law was repealed after an 86-year-old legislator called it discriminatory.

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Traffic challenges change for older drivers, who are less likely than younger ones to be in crashes involving alcohol or speeding. Instead, they have more trouble with intersections, making left turns, and changing lanes or merging, because of gradual declines in vision, reaction times and other abilities, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Scientists are hunting screening tests to check for such things as early warning signs of cognitive problems that might signal who's more at risk. But such screenings are a long way from the local license office. In a closely watched pilot project, California tried a three-step screening process to detect drivers who might need a road test before getting their licenses renewed — but it didn't reduce crashes, sending researchers back to the drawing board.

Today, AAA's Nelson said in-person renewals are "the single most effective thing states can do to improve safety."

That's because workers in the driver's license office can be trained to look for signs of confusion or trouble walking as people come in — two big clues that they may have trouble behind the wheel — and refer those drivers for a road test or a medical exam to see if there's really a problem.

Virginia, for example, lets even the oldest drivers hold a license for eight years, but starting at 80 they must renew in person and pass an eye test. California has five-year renewals, and starting at 70 they must be in-person with both a written test and eye check.

Another big key: Programs that make it easy for doctors, police and family members to alert licensing officials to possibly unsafe drivers of any age, so the experts can investigate. But in states that don't allow confidential reporting, families in particular hesitate in fear of backlash if upset relatives learn who turned them in.

Utah adopted confidential reporting in 2008 "to encourage more people to report problematic drivers without the risk of retaliation or repercussion," said Chris Caras of Utah's Department of Public Safety.

Nor should the question be only whether someone should drive or not: Iowa is leading a growing number of states that customize license restrictions to allow people to stay on the road under certain conditions. People with early-stage Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, for instance, may qualify for a one-year license; people with other health conditions may be allowed to drive only during the day or within a few miles of home.

In California, older drivers who fail a regular road test sometimes get a re-test on familiar neighborhood roads to qualify for a restricted license. State traffic researchers expect demand for that option to grow, and are preparing to study if that tailored testing really assures safety.

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