- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

The number of elderly drivers in the United States is climbing dramatically, and growing numbers of states are enacting special requirements designed to ensure the driving skills of older motorists are not impaired.

Yesterday in Florida, a state with one of the nation’s largest senior populations, a new law took effect that requires drivers 80 and older to pass an eye test to renew their licenses, instead of simply renewing their licenses through the mail.

Florida is one of more than 20 states getting tougher on older drivers by requiring medical or vision tests, mandatory road tests or establishing shorter periods for renewal. It is a trend that is expected to continue, as the population of elderly drivers grows.

Justin McNaull, spokesman for AAA, said a July incident in which 10 persons were killed when an 86-year-old driver plowed through a crowded farmer’s market in Santa Monica, Calif., “put the issue on the national radar.”

Two states, Illinois and New Hampshire, require that drivers 75 and older pass a road test in order to renew their licenses. In Nevada, drivers 70 and older who renew their licenses by mail must include a medical report.

In California, state driving tests are mandatory for license holders 70 and older involved in two or more crashes in a year.

More states could follow with such legislation this year, as 36 state legislatures reconvene.

Currently, there are at least 19 million licensed drivers 65 and older in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That figure is a 32 percent increase from the number a decade ago. It compares with a 13 percent rise in the total number of all licensed drivers during the same period, the NHTSA said.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, drivers 85 and over showed the strongest growth nationally between 1995 to 2001. Their numbers swelled by 46 percent during that period.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety projects there will be 40 million elderly drivers by 2030 and that about 9 million of those licensed drivers will be 85 or older.

The new Florida law, signed by Gov. Jeb Bush in July, mandates that Florida’s more than 600,000 drivers who are at least 80 years old either take the vision test in person at an office of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles or provide a note signed by their eye doctor, saying that they passed the same test.

In Maine, mandatory eye tests begin at the first license renewal after a driver turns 40. In Oregon, eye tests are required beginning at age 60.

According to Beth Kaufman, spokeswoman for the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, Illinois drivers ages 75 to 80 must be road-tested for license renewal every four years under 1990 legislation.

Those 81 to 86 must be road-tested every two years, while those 87 and over must be road-tested yearly. “The feedback from seniors has been very positive. They appreciate the fact they are being retested and that we offer them brush-up Rules of the Road classes,” Ms. Kaufman said.

There’s some debate as to the hazard level elderly drivers pose on the road. A report released late last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based on Department of Transportation data, found that elderly people have “higher rates of fatal crashes than all but the youngest drivers, especially per mile driven.”

In an interview, institute spokesman Russ Rader said, elderly drivers have “elevated crash rates” and “are likely to be at fault in accidents.”

Even so, Mr. Rader said, “Teens are a much bigger risk to people on the road than elderly drivers.”

Crash data for Florida in 2002 found that drivers 85 and over were the third most likely age group to be involved in a fatal crash. The two groups ahead of them were drivers 15 to 24, followed by those 25 to 34.

Illinois and New Hampshire do not have data showing remarkable reductions in unsafe driving by seniors as a result of their road-test requirements for older drivers. But Peter Thomson, coordinator of New Hampshire’s Highway Safety Agency, said his state’s data “show that older drivers are not disproportionately causing crashes.”

Organizations such as AAA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety acknowledge that they are not enthusiastic about the push to single out seniors at the wheel for special testing requirements.

“Ideally, this testing should happen for everybody at renewal,” said Mr. McNaull of AAA. He added that valid testing should gauge not only vision, but also memory and flexibility.

Mr. Rader said it’s “very difficult to come up with tests that will identify those who should not be driving.” He acknowledged that vision tests are “one way to identify people” with problems.

“But would a vision test have prevented that elderly guy in California from getting a license? Probably not,” Mr. Rader said.

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