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Forum and wire reports, Published September 18 2012

Licensing drivers of a certain age in North Dakota, Minnesota

FARGO – For David Bowe, sliding behind the wheel of his big SUV is a measure of freedom.

Age has slowed the 86-year-old a bit, and he has to use oxygen, but he can still negotiate traffic.

That means he can get his groceries and go to the senior center at the NP Depot to socialize and grab a meal.

“It would be awfully awkward,” to go without the car keys, he said Tuesday, as he settled down behind the wheel and prepared to leave the depot’s parking lot.

Bowe’s concessions to age: He avoids driving at night and lets his kids drive if they travel together.

“I seldom go around the (blizzard) barricades” anymore, he jokes.

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 – among them North Dakota – and 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 do you start though? That’s 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.

In North Dakota, shorter license renewals kick in at age 78, when renewal periods drop from six years to four years, the state Department of Transportation says.

Officials can also request medical testing to determine if a driver is capable of driving safely, said Brad Halvorson, a DOT spokesman.

Minnesota has no age-specific restrictions, Kristin Chapin, a spokeswoman with the Department of Public Safety said Tuesday. But there are provisions to have drivers’ physical and mental abilities tested if family members, law enforcement or physicians request. Driving privileges can then be restricted or totally withdrawn, depending on the results.

New scrutiny

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 due to the graying of baby boomers, the federal government is proposing 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.

A complicated issue

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.

That’s how Bernice Schmidt, 78, and her 86-year-old husband are handling the issue.

Schmidt drives to Fargo every day from West Fargo to keep the NP Depot senior center running smoothly, balancing the books, making coffee, and overseeing lunch.

She polices herself when it comes to driving ability. In the past year, she had a retina loosen in her right eye.

“I’m more careful within myself when driving, especially on my right side,” and she no longer likes to drive at dusk or at night.

But the pull of the road and the freedom it offers is strong. Her husband had suffered a stroke a while back, she said, but he worked hard to get certified to drive again.

“He was so bound and determined to get over the hump,” Schmidt said.

Crash rates climb

Measured by miles driven, 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 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. 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.

Patchwork rules

Where you live determines what 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 age 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.

Yet when Iowa drivers turn 70, they must renew their license every two years instead of every five. Neighboring Missouri requires the 70-year-olds renew every three years instead of every six.

This summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a national guideline for older driver safety that, if finalized, would push states to become more consistent.

Among the recommendations: Every 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.

Traffic challenges

Traffic challenges change for older drivers, who are less likely than younger ones to be in crashes involving alcohol or speeding.

Instead, they have more trouble with intersections, making left turns, and changing lanes or merging, because of gradual declines in vision, reaction times and other abilities, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Scientists are hunting screening tests to check for such things as early warning signs of cognitive problems that might signal who is more at risk. But such screenings are a long way from the local license office.

Today, AAA’s Nelson said in-person renewals are “the single most effective thing states can do to improve safety.”

That’s because workers in the driver’s license office can be trained to look for signs of confusion or trouble walking as people come in – two big clues that they may have trouble behind the wheel – and refer those drivers for a road test or a medical exam to see if there’s really a problem.

Still, many people believe that deciding when to give up the car keys is a highly personal call.

”I couldn’t answer that question. I really can’t. Because each individual is different,” Schmidt said. “I can’t really tell you, ‘OK, two years from now, I’m not going to be driving. I can’t really do that.”

Bowe, for one, wouldn’t object to some tighter rules for elder drivers, perhaps required eye tests or behind-the-wheel exams.

“I wouldn’t want to drive if I wasn’t safe,” he said, adding that he hopes everyone feels the same way.

Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt contributed to this Associated Press report. He can be reached at (701) 241-5583