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Should Elderly Drivers Have Their Licenses Slowly Taken Away?

By Aaron Crowe

Just as graduated driver licensing keeps teens safe by not allowing them to drive late at night and earn driving privileges gradually, would it also work for elderly drivers?

Elderly people drive a lot less than teenage drivers do. Still, per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase at age 75 and increase notably after age 80, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These deaths are largely due to increased susceptibility to injury and medical complications among older drivers, rather than an increased tendency to get into crashes, according to the CDC.

Would taking away an elderly driver’s driving privileges gradually lessen the amount of crashes they get into? Will not allowing them to drive at night, for example, when it can be more difficult to see the road, result in fewer accidents by elderly drivers? Or a mandated annual driving test?

The good news is that elderly drivers often self regulate their driving habits. Older drivers tend to limit their driving during bad weather and at night, and drive fewer miles than younger drivers, the CDC says.

Driving is a privilege

One basic argument against gradually taking away an elderly driver’s license is that driving is an earned privilege, and “once a test is passed, not a good idea to second guess it,” says Bonnie Russell, who writes about retirement in California.

But state Departments of Motor Vehicles have the authority to determine if someone can drive safely, and can retest them as they deem necessary. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, recommends states require elderly drivers renew their licenses in person, says Susan Cohen, founder of Americans For Older Driver Safety, or AFODS.

The requirement could stop some unsafe drivers from coming in for their license renewal, and could help eliminate elderly drivers who are too impaired to drive.

“We want older adults to stay on the road as long as they’re safe,” Cohen says.

Another thing to keep in mind when considering taking away an older driver’s license to drive in stages is that two 80-year-olds can have different driving abilities, she says. You can’t judge someone’s driving ability by age alone. “We each age very differently from another,” she says.

Russell says she’s seen drivers well past age 80 who are safe drivers. “My dad is 92 and still driving without a problem,” she says, “and his neighbor just got his license renewed for three years — when he’s 103.”

License renewal laws for older drivers vary by state, with 28 states and the District of Columbia having provisions for older drivers, according to AFODS. Several require in-person renewal and a shorter renewal period for older drivers.

Illinois, for example, sets the standard renewal at four years, but increases it to every two years at age 81 and annually at 87 years old. Iowa requires a renewal every two years beginning at age 70, and at five years for younger drivers.

Screening supported by motorist group

The National Motorists Association, an advocacy group for drivers, “doesn’t support putting age-based restrictions on driving since they would be arbitrary and end up penalizing many responsible drivers,” says NMA spokesman John Bowman. “Extending driving privileges to anyone, whatever their age, should be based on their demonstrated ability to drive safely and responsibly.”

The NMA recommends screening criteria to ensure that older drivers meet basic safe driving requirements, Bowman says:

A license holder of any age with a combination of three separate at-fault accidents or three separate traffic violations, or a combination of the two over six months would be required to attend an evaluation session, followed by a comprehensive test.

Licensing agencies could be petitioned to do an evaluation of a license holder based on first-hand knowledge of family members, law enforcement, or the courts. A driver who loses their license could appeal.

If the evaluation finds significantly diminished physical or cognitive abilities, the agency would revoke the driver’s license.

If a pattern of bad judgment, bad luck or a short-term emotional disruption such as a divorce or death in the family, the license holder would be channeled back to the conventional system that deals with accidents and violations, the NMA recommends.

What to look for

Taking away the keys from an elderly driver isn’t easy, but there are certain signs that family members, the DMV or medical professionals can look for.

Declined vision and hearing, reduced flexibility and being unable to turn their head to check blind spots, delayed reaction time and cognitive abilities to reason and remember are some elderly driver attributes that should be checked regularly.

Cognition, for example, declines for people in their 80s on financial decision making, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, though their confidence in their ability doesn’t waver.

The ability to scan their environment while driving and anticipate what happens next drops as people age, Cohen says, and they may only focus on what’s in front of them. The ability to process information quickly — a cognitive ability — drops in old age, she says.

“A lot of these changes with aging happen so gradually that people don’t even realize they’re changing,” Cohen says.

What older drivers can do

The good news is that crash rates for drivers 70 and older are falling, which has been attributed to safer vehicles and healthier seniors who are better able to survive crashes.

Older drivers are better at self regulating, meaning they’re aware of their impairments and may not drive at night if they have impaired vision, or stay off the roads during commute hours. Older drivers are less likely to drink and drive than other adult drivers, according to the CDC.

The CDC recommends older drivers:

  • Exercise regularly to increase strength and flexibility.
  • Have their medicines reviewed by their doctor or pharmacist to reduce side effects and interactions.
  • Have annual eye exams and wear glasses as required.
  • Drive during daylight and in good weather.
  • Find the safest route with well-lit streets, intersections with left turn arrows, and easy parking.
  • Leave a large distance from the car in front of you.
  • Avoid distractions such as listening to a loud radio, talking on the phone, texting, and eating while driving.
  • Consider alternatives such as riding with a friend or using public transit.

In general, auto insurance rates start to increase after age 70 because the cost to insure seniors is greater due to impaired vision, physical ability and other attributes, says, Chrissy Nigro of Nigro Insurance Agency in Philadelphia.

Things seniors can do to keep their auto insurance rates down, Nigro says, include taking a defensive driving course, exploring different carriers such as Hartford that offer discounts for seniors, changing the primary driver on their insurance policy if that child does the majority of the driving for them, and maintain a clean driving record.

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for CheapCarInsurance.net.