New York state is a leader in many areas, but a laggard when it comes to special licensing requirements for elderly drivers. Unfortunately, these are necessary as more and more New Yorkers are outliving their ability to drive safely. It can’t be left to individuals or their families to decide when that time has come. Government, as the issuer of licenses, has an obligation to make sure elderly drivers are still physically capable.
This is a controversial and emotional topic. Driving represents freedom, mobility and convenience, and most people are reluctant to give it up. But it’s a fact that with increasing age comes a diminishing of three important functions for driving: vision, cognition and motor function. That puts the elderly at significantly higher risk than middle-aged adults, especially for crashes at intersections involving left turns.
It’s true, as many elderly people argue, that young drivers are also involved in a disproportionate number of accidents. But this is usually due to inexperience and immaturity, not physical impairments. And New York state has at least tried to address the issue with graduated licensing requirements that make teen drivers take a driver’s ed or pre-licensing course, wait longer and get more practice driving before getting full privileges.
Not so with elderly drivers. While 33 states have some special provisions for them — such as more frequent renewals, no mail renewals, more frequent vision tests, a medical report, and even, in Illinois and New Hampshire, road tests for those over 75 — New York has none. Elderly drivers, like everyone else, need only renew every eight years (a longer cycle than most states) and pass a basic vision test administered by the Department of Motor Vehicles or, if renewing online or by mail, a vision care professional.
Ideally, there would be more frequent renewals and more extensive vision and skills testing — on a simulator if not the road. (There would also be more communities that were walkable and had public or other forms of transportation, so the elderly could easily get around without a car.) But it’s time for the state to at least acknowledge this problem, which with an aging population is only going to get worse, and do something about it.