TUESDAY, June 15, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- States that require their oldest drivers to renew their licenses in person have the lowest fatality rate for motorists over age 85, according to a new study.
Surprisingly, the researchers also found that vision tests, road tests, and the frequency of license renewal made little difference in the number of traffic fatalities when considered independently.
The study, which appears in the June 16 Journal of the American Medical Association, found a 17 percent reduced risk of traffic death for drivers over 85 if they had to go to the motor vehicle department to renew their licenses.
"We found that one particular aspect of state licensing laws -- in-person renewal -- was associated with a decrease in fatalities in the 85-plus age group," said the study's lead author, David Grabowski, an assistant professor of health care policy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Motor vehicle fatality rates have been on the rise since 1980 among older drivers, the researchers note. Older drivers are currently responsible for about 14 percent of all traffic fatalities, but that number is expected to nearly double by 2030, according to the study.
For this study, Grabowski and his colleagues examined 10 years' worth of state-by-state data on fatal crashes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, comparing it to each state's licensing policies. The policies they looked at included in-person license renewal, frequency of license renewal, vision tests, and road tests.
The researchers found that 45 states required in-person renewal, 40 required vision tests, while only two states required older drivers to take a road test.
The only licensing policy that appeared to make a significant difference in the number of driver fatalities, according to the study, was in-person renewal for drivers older than 85. In this age group, the in-person licensing requirement led to a 17 percent reduction in the fatality rate.
In-person licensing didn't make a significant difference in driver fatalities for drivers under 85. Vision and road testing also didn't have a big impact on driver fatalities, nor did the frequency of licensing.
Grabowski said he thinks that in-person licensing may help reduce fatalities because when older drivers come in, motor vehicle employees have a chance to identify those who may be unsafe and refer them for further testing. Also, he said, some drivers who suspect they may not pass may opt not to renew their license.
Even though road tests and vision tests appear to have little impact in reducing fatalities, they might still help identify individuals with problems, Grabowski added. He also believes the vision test used by most states may not be the best tool for picking out unsafe drivers.
Linda Rhodes, author of the book Caregiving As Your Parents Age and a member of the Home Instead Senior Care advisory board, agreed that the current visual tests may not be enough.
"If it's just a simple vision test, they may still be able to pass it and drive, but that doesn't mean there hasn't been a real change in depth perception," said Rhodes.
She recommended that adult children take a ride with their parents to see how their driving really is. Also, watch out for specific clues -- if you notice lots of small dents in the car, or if your parent is starting to get traffic tickets, it's imperative that you assess their driving. If you're afraid to get in the car with your parent, or you won't let your children ride with your parents, that's another red flag they probably shouldn't be driving, Rhodes said.
She said it's often not necessary for you to have confront your parent about their driving. Instead, she suggests, "Call your state department of transportation and ask them what the process is for anonymous reporting." They'll send them a letter requesting in-person license renewal.
Another option, she said, is to speak with your parent's physician and tell them your concerns and ask them to refer your parent to an ophthalmologist for eye testing.
Rhodes said the issue is laden with emotion because driving represents freedom, especially in rural areas where public transportation isn't always available.
But, she added, "People think driving is a right, but the bottom line is that it's a privilege and a responsibility."
If you're worried about your driving or that of a loved one, go to the AARP's Web site and take this quiz to determine if you or your loved one should seriously think about retiring from driving.