The latest installment in the joint AP-APME series examining the aging of baby boomers and the impact this so-called silver tsunami is having on society.
By LAURAN NEERGAARD
WASHINGTON — Jerry Wiseman notices it’s harder to turn and check his car’s blind spots at age 69 than it was at 50.
So the Illinois man and his wife took a refresher driving course, hunting tips to stay safe behind the wheel for many more years — a good idea considering their state has arguably the nation’s toughest older-driver laws.
More older drivers are on the road than ever before, and an AP review found they face a hodgepodge of state licensing rules that reflect scientific uncertainty and public angst over a growing question: How can we tell if it’s time to give up the keys?
Thirty states plus the District of Columbia have some sort of older-age requirement for driver’s licenses, ranging from more vision testing to making seniors renew their licenses more frequently than younger people.
At what age? That’s literally all over the map. Maryland starts eye exams at 40. Shorter license renewals kick in anywhere from age 59 in Georgia to 85 in Texas.
The issue attracted new attention when a 100-year-old driver backed over a group of schoolchildren in Los Angeles late last month. That’s a rarity, but with an imminent surge in senior drivers, the federal government is proposing that all states take steps to address what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls “the real and growing problem of older driver safety.”
Here’s the conundrum:
“Birthdays don’t kill. Health conditions do,” said Joseph Coughlin, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, which develops technologies to help older people stay active.
Healthy older drivers aren’t necessarily less safe than younger ones, Coughlin points out. But many older people have health issues that can impair driving, from arthritis to dementia, from slower reflexes to the use of multiple medications.
There’s no easy screening tool that licensing authorities can use to spot people with subtle health risks. So some states use birthdays as a proxy for more scrutiny.
Senior driving is a more complicated issue than headline-grabbing tragedies might suggest. Older drivers don’t crash as often as younger ones. But they also drive less. About 60 percent of seniors voluntarily cut back, avoiding nighttime driving or interstates or bad weather, said David Eby of the University of Michigan’s Center for Advancing Safe Transportation throughout the Lifespan.
Measure by miles driven, and the crash rate of older drivers begins to climb in the 70s, with a sharper jump at 80, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Only teens and 20-somethings do worse.
That rising risk reflects the challenge for families as they try to help older loved ones stay safe but still get around for as long as possible, which itself is important for health.
The good news: Fatal crashes involving seniors have dropped over the last decade, perhaps because cars and roads are safer or they’re staying a bit healthier, said the Insurance Institute’s Anne McCartt.
And seniors are about to transform the nation’s roadways. Today, nearly 34 million drivers are 65 or older. By 2030, federal estimates show there will be about 57 million — making up about a quarter of all licensed drivers.
Baby boomers are expected to hang on to their licenses longer, and drive more miles, than previous generations.
Where you live determines which extra requirements, if any, older adults must meet to keep their driver’s license.
Among the most strict rules: Illinois requires a road test to check driving skills with every license renewal starting at 75 — and starting at age 81, those renewals are required every two years instead of every four. At 87, Illinois drivers must renew annually.
In Washington, D.C., starting at age 70, drivers must bring a doctor’s certification that they’re still OK to drive every time they renew their license.
New Mexico requires annual renewals at 75.
Geographic variability makes little sense, said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research.
“Either I’m safe to drive or I’m not. Where I live shouldn’t matter,” he said.
This summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a national guideline for older driver safety that would push states to become more consistent. Among the recommendations: Each state needs a program to improve older driver safety; doctors should be protected from lawsuits if they report a possibly unsafe driver; and driver’s licenses should be renewed in person after a certain age, tailored to each state’s crash data.
Many states say their main focus should be on inexperienced teen drivers and problems such as texting behind the wheel.
“Teens are risk takers. Our older drivers are risk avoiders,” said state Rep. Jim McClendon of Alabama, where drivers renew licenses every four years, with no older age requirements.
New Hampshire last year stopped requiring road tests when 75-year-olds renewed their licenses. The law was repealed after an 86-year-old legislator called it discriminatory.
On the other side is the family of a Baltimore college student who died last year after being run over by an 83-year-old driver who turned into his bike lane. Maryland next month begins issuing licenses that last longer — eight years instead of five — despite an emotional appeal from the mother of Nathan Krasnopoler that that’s too long for the oldest drivers.
“You should be looking at your drivers to be sure they’re able to safely drive. There’s plenty of research that as we age, things do change and we may not be aware of those changes,” said Susan Cohen, who is urging Maryland officials to study adding some form of competency screening, in addition to the required eye exams, to license renewals.