published Monday, September 17th, 2012

AP IMPACT: Varied license laws for older drivers

  • photo
    In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012, senior driver Preston Carter, 100, holds onto his California driver's license and car keys, as he talks with Los Angeles police officer, after police say his car went onto a sidewalk and plowed into a group of parents and children outside a South Los Angeles elementary school, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012, in Los Angeles. Nine children and two adults were injured in the wreck. There is no upper age limit for driving a car in California. At the end of last year, 71,111 people 90 or older were licensed to drive in the state. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LAURAN NEERGAARD

The latest installment in the joint series examining the aging of the baby boomers and the impact that this so-called silver tsunami is having on society.

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 Associated Press 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 instead.

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, however, and the crash rate of older drivers begins to climb in the 70s, with a sharper jump at age 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 past decade, perhaps because cars and roads are safer or they're staying a bit healthier, said the Insurance Institute's Anne McCartt. Yet the oldest drivers, those 85 and up, still have the highest rate of deadly crashes per mile, even more than teens. And more often than not, they're the victims, largely because they're too frail to survive their injuries.

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. The baby boomers in particular are expected to hang onto their licenses longer, and drive more miles, than previous generations.

Specialists say more seniors need to be planning ahead like Jerry Wiseman and his wife Sandy.

"Absolutely we want to be as good drivers as we can possibly be for as long as we can," said Wiseman, of Schaumburg, Ill.

At an AARP course, Wiseman learned exercises to improve his flexibility for checking those blind spots. He takes extra care with left-hand turns, which become riskier as the ability to judge speed and distance wanes with age. He knows to watch for other changes.

"We'll be ready when it's time for one of us to stop," he said.

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