July 30, 2009
The New York Times
Tanya Mohn

Two weeks ago, we wrote about a computer program to help older people drive more safely (DriveSharp). The article drew comments about whether aging drivers should be tested before having their licenses renewed. “Unleashing an aging Baby Boomer generation on the roadways will cause a genuine public health crisis in the years to come,” one reader wrote.

It’s a valid concern, as a greater number of older people are on the road, and they are driving more miles than before, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And that number is expected to increase in the next 15 to 20 years, when one in four drivers will be 65 or older.

But older drivers aren’t the menace many believe. In fact, they tend to be good drivers, experts said. They have a lifetime of driving experience and often self-regulate by limiting driving in bad weather or in heavy traffic. And when older drivers get into crashes, they tend to hurt themselves more than they hurt others. The Insurance Institute recently completed a study that showed that fatal crashes involving drivers 70 and older have substantially declined during this decade.

But as people age, vision, mental speed and physical abilities often decline. Some states have special provisions for older drivers that include vision and road tests, and in-person renewal procedures that are intended to identify impairments that affect driving safety.

But, said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the institute, most of these screening tests have not been perfected and cannot predict with a high degree of accuracy which drivers have a greater crash risk.

“The only licensing provision that has been shown to have a clear benefit for older drivers in reducing their crashes is in-personal renewal,” Dr. McCartt said, adding that other measures may be beneficial, but “haven’t been well evaluated” yet.

AARP advocates in-person renewal for all ages throughout a driver’s life, as ability, not age, better identifies impairments that are likely to predict crashes, according to the organization.

Some states have active medical advisory boards, which allow police, doctors, and community and family members to report potentially unsafe drivers. Flagged drivers are tested, which can result in license renewal, renewal with limitations (such as restricting night driving) or suspension.

Drivers can check renewal provisions online. The Insurance Institute has a state-by-state listing, and last month the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety posted searchable databases of licensing policies and innovative or noteworthy programs that state agencies are undertaking. AARP offers resources to drivers (and their families) to determine when it’s time to limit or stop driving.

“It’s every person’s responsibility to keep up his or her driving skills and to monitor skills of family members – whether they are older or younger,” said Nancy Thompson, an AARP spokeswoman.