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. 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 baby-boom generation 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 says. 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.
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 twentysomethings 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.
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. Among the strictest 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.
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.
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.