Changes advocated in license renewals for seniors

Senior citizens not only drive more these days, but have sped past teenagers as the age group with the highest number of traffic accidents per mile.

These and other sobering statistics highlight the need for changes in state driver’s license renewals to address the risks that elderly drivers pose to other drivers and themselves, David Rosenfield writes in the current issue of the Elder Law Journal, published by the College of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The fastest growing segment of the driving population, seniors make up 9 percent (about 19 million) of the nation’s drivers. This figure is expected to jump to more than 30 million drivers by 2020.

Drivers aged 75 and older have a 37 percent higher crash rate than younger drivers, said Rosenfield, an editor at the journal. And because they are more physically fragile than their younger counterparts, senior drivers are more likely to be injured in a car crash. With the exception of teenage drivers, seniors have the highest probability of death resulting from an auto-related accident of any age group.

While age alone does not determine a person’s ability to operate an automobile, “evidence suggests that certain characteristics associated with aging impair driving performance,” Rosenfield said.

Perhaps the most serious physical disability is the decreased ability of an elderly person to see at night. In addition, studies show that a person’s risk evaluation, cognitive capacity and decision-making abilities often decrease with age, which, along with motor ability problems and encroaching dementia, can impair driving performance.

To counteract these physical and mental ailments, many elderly persons take medication.

“In many instances, these medications have adverse side effects” on their driving skills, Rosenfield wrote. “For example, benzodiazepines, commonly taken for anxiety and insomnia, may cause confusion, drowsiness, decreased motor coordination and impaired memory. To make matters worse, many elderly drivers are often unaware of the adverse side effects posed by medications.”

While all states require some form of visual testing when a license is first issued to a driver, many states don’t require drivers to undergo vision testing as part of the renewal process.

Furthermore, no state now requires a mental or competency test as a prerequisite for obtaining a license renewal once a person reaches a certain age. While several states require an application to undergo a mental health examination if notified by a police officer or relative, the majority of states “do not have any formal system for requiring a medical examination, but rather only subject an applicant to such an examination if the applicant appears mentally unable to operate an automobile.”

Rosenfield recommended that a more uniform and stringent system of license renewals be adopted by state legislatures. These rules should address the unique problems posed by elderly drivers “without jeopardizing an elderly person’s independence and sense of dignity.” Legislation requiring automobile insurers to offer discounts to elderly drivers who complete a driver’s safety course, for example, is a step in the right direction.

An alternative solution posed by some experts — designing automobiles with systems designed specifically to aid seniors — has more limitations than advantages at present, according to the U. of I. scholar.

A major drawback is that new technology, such as collision warning lights or night vision equipment, “necessarily requires that elderly drivers learn how to use these new devices.” Current technology also “requires drivers to multitask while driving to activate the new systems,” which presents various physical and mental barriers to many elderly drivers.

From University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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