(Sept. 18, 2012) -- 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 for 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 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, he 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 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.
Measured by miles driven, however, 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.
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 OK to drive every time they renew their license.
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.
Some states introduce age requirements after high-profile accidents. Massachusetts requires drivers to start renewing licenses in person at age 75, with proof of an eye exam. The change came after an 88-year-old driver struck and killed a 4-year-old crossing a suburban Boston street in 2009.
This summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a national guideline for older driver safety that, if approved, 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.
Still, 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 Alabama state Rep. Jim McClendon. Alabama 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.
It's not the only state worrying about age discrimination. "You don't want to go around and say, 'This person is 85. We've got to take them off the road.' That wouldn't be fair," said Assemblyman David Gantt of New York.
DRIVER LAWS IN CALIFORNIA
In California, licenses are renewed every five years, and until age 70, drivers automatically may be granted two five-year renewals by mail or online.
Starting at 70, drivers must renew in person, taking a written test and eye exam.
At any age, a road test may be administered if a Department of Motor Vehicles employee believes there's a reason, or if a doctor, police officer, relative or even a neighbor requests one, said DMV spokesman Armando Botello.
State law allows confidential reporting of a possibly unsafe driver, and California is one of the few states to require that doctors report certain medical conditions that could affect driving ability.