States reluctant to impose age-based limits.
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 in preventing traffic fatalities as once thought. 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,” says 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, says another reason many legislatures have not passed age-based restrictions lately is that society has changed the way it defines “old.”
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 required drivers 65 and older to pass vision and road tests before obtaining or renewing 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,” says Jurek Grabowski, research director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research and education group.
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.
In the early 1970s, barely half of Americans 65 and older held a driver’s license. Nowadays, 84 percent do.
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.
In 2014, 5,709 people 65 and older were killed and about 221,000 were injured in crashes.
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,” says 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 been effective.
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, says Jessica 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 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.