Shedding Light on Older Driver Licensing

Older driver licensing is a perennially hot topic in traffic safety, with senior-involved crashes often generating significant media coverage and public calls to re-examine license renewal procedures. At the AAA Foundation, however, our objective is to promote twin goals: safety and mobility for Americans as they age. And, in reality, little is actually known about the effectiveness of various older driver licensing and renewal policies, which makes having an informed discussion in the wake of tragedy quite difficult.

In an effort to learn more about this issue, we've recently completed one of the first studies of the relationship between various older driver license renewal policies and fatal crash rates. By examining 26 years of data from 46 states, we've been able to make several observations that may surprise you.

The most significant finding pertains to state requirements for in-person license renewal (rather than by mail or online). For drivers ages 55 and older, in-person renewal policies are associated with a 9 percent reduction in fatal crash involvement rates. For drivers 85 and up, the decline is 25 percent.

Several policies, however, were not associated with a reduction in fatal crash rates. These included increasing renewal frequency, requiring drivers to pass an on-road or knowledge test, and mandating physician reporting of patients whose driving they have reason to be concerned about. 

One of the more complicated patterns that emerged pertained to vision testing requirements. Older drivers had lower fatal crash rates in states that mandated vision testing than in those that did not, but changes in policy status (i.e., when policies were enacted or repealed in a state) didn't change fatal crash rates. This suggests that other factors besides the vision test requirement itself are at play, and we clearly have much more to learn. 

Among the key questions the research raises is why mandatory in-person renewal is so effective. Is it because the screening process successfully identifies at-risk drivers? Or does the burden of having to appear in person preemptively dissuade or even frighten older drivers from going to the DMV in the first place? Of course, it is likely some combination of additional factors is at play. 

Regardless of the specifics, it's useful to remember (especially when talk of older driver licensing reaches a fevered pitch) that older drivers are not the nation's most crash-prone motorists, nor are they the most likely to cause injury or death to other road users. Both of those distinctions are unique to teenagers, an age group about which licensing policies and procedures have been much more thoroughly studied. 

As always, we'll continue to study issues related to teen and older drivers, and will keep you posted each step of the way at