September 2, 2009
Christian Science Monitor
Staff Reporter

The number of Americans over age 65 will nearly double by 2030 as baby boomers join that age group. As a result, states are struggling with an influx of older drivers and whether to require more frequent examinations of their abilities to handle a vehicle.

In Massachusetts, after several highly publicized accidents involving seniors behind the wheel, the legislature is considering a bill that would single out older drivers for more testing than younger drivers.

But laws based on age have never made less sense than today, when Americans are more active than ever at advanced ages. A more thoughtful alternative has been offered by Safe Roads Now, a Massachusetts group made up of local members of AAA and AARP, as well as experts on aging.

Currently 26 states put special conditions or requirements on older drivers, such as more frequent license renewals or requiring that renewals take place in person, which allows for various tests to judge the driver’s abilities. Some ask for other restrictions, such as no night driving or driving only within a restricted area or on specific routes.

The recommendations from Safe Roads Now ask the state of Massachusetts to require all drivers to make in-person renewals of their licenses. The visit would include vision and other skills tests, and tests of driving knowledge. If the driver (of any age) fails these, he or she might be asked to take a road test.

In addition, healthcare providers, police, and others would be encouraged to report anyone they encounter who they feel is in need of reevaluation by the state’s licensing agency. And a “trigger system” would require a visit to a license bureau for an assessment if an individual had been in several accidents within a few months’ time. Those who face losing a license would be offered education and training programs to help them improve their driving skills and regain their license, if possible.

A computer program called DriveSmart, sponsored by the AAA Foundation, helps drivers develop more awareness of what is going on around them on the road and react more quickly to what they see, through a game played on a computer screen.

Posit Science, which developed and sells the software, claims that those who train on it can cut their crash risk by up to 50 percent. Drivers can train themselves to increase their peripheral vision by 200 percent, making spotting a child or dog running into view from the corner of one’s eye much faster, according to the company.

All drivers would also benefit if all highway signs, signals, and pavement markings were more clearly marked and easily seen, and if better transportation alternatives were available for those who don’t want to drive, either because of physical limitations or for environmental or other reasons.

For seniors, driving helps them maintain their independence. It’s a way to keep important appointments, shop, and visit family or friends. Yes, older drivers must show that they can share the road safely. But that’s just as true for drivers of any age.