If you drive a car, you’ve probably had at least a few irritating or frightening encounters with truly awful motorists, such as the guy behind you who crosses the double-yellow line to make a sudden pass into oncoming traffic. Or the driver who taps the brake and rolls through a stop sign without coming to a complete halt. Ignore the regular speeders, tailgaters, and dangerous drivers who appear to have forgotten how to use a turn signal.
In fact, according to a 2011 survey done by GMAC Insurance, roughly one in five license applicants were unable to pass a written test of basic driving skills. However despite the fact that the majority of candidates passed, there were several glaring exceptions.
In the United States, where some states didn’t even require rookie drivers to pass a road test until the 1950s, the concept of requiring experienced motorists to demonstrate their ability on a regular basis has never been widely implemented. Illinois is the only state that requires driving skills exams for license renewals, and only for drivers over the age of 75. (New Hampshire had a similar age-related testing requirement until 2011, when it was removed.) According to a 2014 Pennlive.com article, Pennsylvania randomly selects a small number of drivers aged 45 and older and forces them to undergo extra medical and visual exams; depending on the results, they may also be required to take a driving test. In addition, a few other states, including Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, and California, permit officials to choose impose road tests of license holders whom they have cause to believe may be risky. According to this compilation of driver’s license laws by Claims Journal and AAA, this is the case.
In Iowa, for instance, “drivers with valid licenses may be required to demonstrate their driving competence prior to license renewal if their health has changed,” notes Andrea Henry, director of strategic communications and policy for the Iowa Department of Transportation. This encompasses physical and mobility difficulties, as well as vision impairment and cognitive impairment. While data on the number of retests administered was unavailable, the vast majority of these drivers receive license renewals, albeit with restrictions such as a lower personal speed limit or daytime driving only.
So Many Drivers, So Little Time
Regularly retesting experienced drivers, who numbered approximately 210 million in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available from the Federal Highway Administration, would require them to wait in line with all first-time applicants. That would result in even longer lines at testing stations that already have their hands full coping with anxious teenagers attempting to do maneuvers such as the dreaded reverse two-point turnabout without colliding with those tiny yellow cones.
Numerous of these young licensing candidates ultimately return for retests. According to a 2011 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a large number of novices fail on their first attempt. In California, for instance, 42.7 percent of applicants failed the knowledge test, while 32 percent failed the skills test. (Missouri had the lowest knowledge test performance, with a 61.4 percent failure rate, while Maine had the poorest driving skills score, with 40 percent failing).
NHTSA discovered that this is all true, despite the fact that driving tests in the U.S. are significantly easier than those in the rest of the globe. In the Canadian province of British Columbia, for instance, prospective drivers must undergo a 45-minute test on a variety of road types and must verbally identify the road dangers that are directly beside, one block ahead, and behind their vehicles in order to demonstrate their awareness.
There is no indication that extra testing throughout the years would necessarily increase road safety. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, research have shown contradictory results regarding whether age restrictions reduce the number of accidents; in Illinois, they did, but in New Hampshire, they did not. And according to this 2017 AAA research summary, the risk of injury-causing collisions per 100 million miles driven is highest among young drivers, then falls and levels off for decades before beginning to rise slightly among persons in their 70s. This is not the trend you would observe if many middle-aged persons saw a big decline in their driving skills or knowledge.
Retesting Does Not Increase Safety
“Retesting (if you fail the test, you lose your license) has been found to have ZERO safety impact on the drivers involved,” AAA’s head of traffic safety advocacy and research, Jake Nelson, writes in an email. It has also been demonstrated that it reduces mobility as a result of drivers voluntarily surrendering their licenses out of fear of having them revoked, as opposed to valid driving problems.
Nelson stated, “there is no data/research to support testing or screening at a given age.”
Gary Biller, the president of the National Motorists Association, a national advocacy group, has similar skepticism regarding the utility of retesting experienced drivers. He says in an email, “Safety statistics regularly demonstrate that the accident rates of drivers aged 70 and older are not much different from those aged 35 to 69.”
“In contrast, drivers under the age of 35 have the highest accident risk,” Biller continues. “This implies multiple things. One is that driving experience is one of the most crucial aspects for safe driving. State regulations for the renewal of driver’s licenses are also acceptable. These criteria vary by state, but as a driver reaches 65, 70, or in some cases 75 years of age, they often involve more frequent relicensing and vision examinations.”
“According to Biller, the NMA does not believe that states need to expand license requirements for elderly drivers beyond present levels.” But, he believes there may be value in giving officials the opportunity to reexamine select potentially problematic drivers. “It should be possible to ask the licensing agency to conduct a review of a particular license holder based on firsthand information from family members, police enforcement, or the courts. There should also be an appeals process for those who are in danger of losing their license or having its privileges reduced.”
This strategy could provide some protection against the most obviously intoxicated and potentially dangerous drivers on the road. The drivers who disregard the regulations because they believe they can get away with it, however, are likely to remain a source of concern.