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Effectiveness: 2 Star Cost: $$$
Use: Medium
Time: Medium

Overall Effectiveness Concerns: Some version of this countermeasure has been implemented in over half the States. Its effectiveness has been examined in several research studies. Despite some positive research findings, the balance of evidence regarding countermeasure effectiveness remains inconclusive.

Driver’s licenses in most States are valid for 4 to 6 years, longer in a few States. To renew an expiring license, drivers in many States must appear in person, pay the license fee, and have new pictures taken for their licenses. A few States require a vision test for license renewal. Some States allow all drivers to renew by mail or electronically.

More than half the States change license renewal requirements for drivers older than a specified age, typically 65 or 70. These changes may include a shorter interval between renewals, in- person renewal (no renewal by mail or electronically), or a vision test at every renewal. A very few States require written or road tests for some older renewal applicants. AAA (2017), IIHS (2018), and Stutts (2005, Chapter 5) summarize these requirements.

License examiners report that driver appearance at the motor vehicle office is the single most important criterion for identifying a person of any age whose driving skills may be impaired (Potts et al., 2004, Strategy C2). This observation is supported by Morrisey and Grabowski (2005), who found that in-person license renewal was associated with reduced Statewide traffic fatalities among the oldest drivers (85 and older). Frequent in-person renewals and vision tests may be more useful for older drivers than for younger drivers because their abilities may change more quickly. AAMVA recommends that all drivers renew licenses in-person and pass a vision test at least every 4 years (Staplin & Lococo, 2003; Stutts, 2005). Very few States meet these recommendations for all drivers. In-person renewals would be even more useful for drivers of all ages if they included functional ability tests as recommended in the NHTSA-AAMVA Model Driver Screening and Evaluation Program Guidelines for Motor Vehicle Administrators (Staplin & Lococo, 2003) (see the Older Drivers chapter, Section 2.1).

The value of in-person renewals and vision tests are further supported by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s study analyzing effects of laws and licensing policies in 46 U.S. States on the fatal crash involvement rates of older drivers from 1985 to 2011 (Tefft, 2014). Requiring in-person renewal instead of allowing online or mail-in renewals was associated with a 9% reduction in fatal crash involvement rates for drivers 55 and above. The effects of the in-person renewal requirement were greatest (25% reduction in fatal crash involvement) for the oldest age group studied, those 85 and older. There is question, however, whether the large effects of in-person renewal requirements were due to the examiners being able to remove unsafe older drivers from the driving population or to older drivers possibly ceasing to drive prematurely. Other driver license renewal policies investigated – vision test, knowledge test, on-road driving test, and mandatory reporting laws for physicians – were not found to reduce fatal crash involvement rates of older drivers.

Use: At least 35 States and the District of Columbia have one or more different license renewal requirements for older drivers than for younger drivers. These include 22 States with shorter intervals between renewals, 17 plus the District of Columbia that require vision tests or other vision screening at renewal more frequently, and 1 State (Illinois) that requires road tests for applicants 75 and older. Sixteen States and the District of Columbia prohibit online and/or renewals by mail; of these, Louisiana allows people 70 or older to renew online or by mail with suitable physician certifications of health. The District of Columbia mandates physician approval for all drivers 70 and older (IIHS, 2019).

Effectiveness: License examiners report that in-person renewals and vision tests are effective in identifying people whose driving skills may be impaired (Potts et al., 2004, Strategy C2). No known data are available on the number of potentially impaired drivers identified through these practices or on the specific effects of more frequent renewals and vision tests on crashes. Furthermore, studies regarding the effectiveness of vision screening for license renewal indicate that the value of the vision tests commonly used for licensing decisions as predictors of increased crash risk is inconclusive and that the aspects of vision currently assessed for licensing do not adequately explain unsafe driving (Bohensky et al., 2008). Nonetheless, one study found that fatalities among drivers 80 years and older in Florida decreased by 17% after the State passed a law requiring these drivers to pass a vision test before renewing their driver licenses (McGwin et al., 2008).

Thomas et al. (2013) examined driver licensing policies and procedures for drivers 65 and older. They selected 4 States for in-depth study (Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire) and six comparison States (Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Vermont, and Wisconsin). The study States that were chosen had policies with the potential to reduce older driver crashes, including shorter renewal periods, in-person renewal, and vision testing for older drivers. In addition, Illinois and New Hampshire mandated a road test for every renewal. Four or 5 years of crash data were examined in all 10 States to measure population-based and per-licensed-driver crash rates for drivers of all ages. Contrary to what might be expected, the older drivers supported and accepted their States’ efforts to assure the safety of older drivers. Analysis of crash data for all 10 States revealed either stable or declining crash rates per 1,000 licensed drivers with increasing age for each 5-year age group in each State. Crash rates per licensed driver for the different 5-year age groups showed a similar pattern, with declining rates with increasing age in all States other than Illinois and New Hampshire, the two States that require an on-road test at renewal for all drivers over 75. As there were more similarities than differences for licensing renewal between States, analyses based on licensing practices did not yield reliable differences. New Hampshire repealed its requirement for mandatory on-road testing for older adults effective July 2011 (IIHS, 2018).

Costs: More-frequent license renewals or additional testing at renewal impose direct costs on driver licensing agencies. For example, a State that reduces the renewal time from 6 years to 3 years for drivers 65 and older would approximately double the licensing agency workload associated with these drivers. If 15% of licensed drivers in the State are 65 and older, then the agency’s overall workload would increase by about 15% to process the renewals. If more frequent renewals and vision tests identify more drivers who require additional screening and assessment, then additional costs are imposed. See the Older Drivers chapter 7, Section 2.1, for additional discussion.

Time to implement: A vision test requirement for renewal or a change in the renewal interval can be implemented within months. The new requirements will not apply to all drivers for several years, until all currently valid licenses have expired and drivers appear at the driver licensing agency for licensing renewal.

Other issues:

  • Age discrimination: A few States explicitly indicate that age alone is not a justification for reexamining a driver’s qualifications (AAA, 2019; IIHS, 2019). These States have the same license renewal interval for all drivers and/or have specific provisions that prohibit licensing personnel from treating people differently solely due to age.
  • Road tests and medical reports: Several Australian States require medical reports,  road tests, or both for drivers over a specified age to renew their licenses. Langford et al. (2004) compared Australian States with and without these requirements. They found that Australian States with these requirements had higher older-driver crash rates than States without them. They conclude that there are “no demonstrable road safety benefits” to requiring medical reports or road tests for older drivers.