Should elderly drivers be retested?

Last week, a 72-year-old New Canaan man faced vehicular manslaughter charges for allegedly striking and killing a motorcyclist last fall. In Darien, an 89-year-old man turned himself in after allegedly hitting and severely injuring 15-year-old pedestrian on Hoyt Street. He claimed he didn't know he hit anything until he saw the accident reported in the paper the next day. And on Friday an 85-year-old man sustained minor injuries after rolling his car over on West Avenue in Darien.

For years, lawmakers, senior advocates and the children of elderly parents have debated the need for retesting older drivers. Now that seniors have longer life expectancies, and Baby Boomers are beginning to age, more and more older drivers are on the road. The Federal Highway Administration states that in 2007 there were more than 20 million licensed drivers 70 and older in the United States. Statistics also show that the total annual miles older drivers traveled climbed 29 percent from 1995 to 2001.

And while age may not have factored into the accidents mentioned above, it raises the important question of whether elderly citizens should continue to drive.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration aging affects elderly drivers in a number of ways: "Safe elderly drivers require the complex coordination of many different skills. The physical and mental changes that accompany aging can diminish the abilities of elderly drivers. These include: a slowdown in response time; a loss of clarity in vision and hearing; a loss of muscle strength and flexibility; drowsiness due to medications; and a reduction in the ability to focus or concentrate."

The administration said that one or two of these changes aren't automatic reasons to stop driving, but an elderly person's driving skills should be revaluated to determine if they need to alter driving habits or stop driving altogether.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) states that specific physical, cognitive and visual abilities may decline as people age, but adds that age alone is not sufficient information to judge driving ability. We agree, which is why we feel retesting should be mandatory. We don't believe there should be an age limit on driving since no two people are the same. However, while one driver may have perfect vision and hearing, another's may quickly be deteriorating.

The IIHS also cited several studies that have shown that "higher levels of physical, cognitive or visual impairment among older drivers are associated with increased risk of crash involvement."

While we agree that revoking someone's license is akin to taking away their freedom, we also believe elderly drivers with diminished vision and hearing, as well as slower reflexes, pose a greater danger to society as a whole. It wasn't long ago that the state of Connecticut changed rules for teen drivers. Kids can't pile their friends in the car until they've had their license for one full year. We feel that the state should be flexible with elderly drivers as well, making sure they're tested to protect everyone's safety.

The IIHS found that when compared to younger drivers, senior drivers are "over-involved" in certain types of collisions -- angle crashes, overtaking or merging crashes and especially intersection crashes. The most common error made in senior-involved crashes is failure to yield the right-of-way. Seniors are cited for this error more often than younger drivers, the institute claims. In a recent institute study of non-fatal crashes occurring at intersections, drivers 80 and older had fewer rear-end crashes than drivers ages 35 to 54 and 70 to 79, and both groups of older drivers had more failure-to-yield crashes and fewer ran-off-road crashes than younger drivers. Reasons for older drivers' failure-to-yield crashes varied with age. Compared with younger and older drivers, the study stated that drivers 70 to 79 were more likely to see another vehicle but misjudge whether there was time to proceed. Drivers 80 and older predominantly failed to see the other vehicle.

Since not all crashes are reported to the police, the IIHS also looked at insurance claims, and found that both collision and property damage claims begin increasing after "about age 65 meaning that seniors more often are involved in crashes."

Currently, Connecticut does not have laws pertaining to elderly drivers. As long as you have a current license, and the funds, the state will renew your license.

There are only two states, New Hampshire and Illinois, that mandate road tests for drivers 75 and over.

A 2009 Boston Globe article stated, "In 2007, New Hampshire drivers 75 and older were involved in nine fatal traffic crashes, compared with 32 in Massachusetts, according to federal statistics. That year, New Hampshire drivers age 65 and older were involved in 11 percent of all fatal crashes, slightly lower than Massachusetts's 11.6 percent."

In 2004, Florida began requiring drivers 80 and older to pass a visual acuity test when renewing their driver's license. An IIHS study of this requirement found that 80 percent of those eligible for license renewal attempted to do so, and only 7 percent of drivers were denied license renewal because they failed the vision test. Of those who did not seek renewal, about half said they thought they would fail the vision test.

California requires drivers 70 and older to undergo a vision test and a written test. A road test is required only if there are indications of driver impairment, based on a report by a law enforcement officer, a physician or a family member.

Washington, D.C., requires a vision test at the time of renewal, and states that a reaction test may also be administered starting at age 70. A practicing physician must certify that the applicant is physically and mentally competent to drive. Starting at age 75, drivers may be required to complete a written test and a road test.

Connecticut should also take steps to ensure everyone's safety on the road. It took a number of high-speed fatal crashes for the state to change the laws pertaining to teenage drivers, and we believe the state should require testing for elderly drivers before additional fatalities occur on our roads.