Caring Currents

Should There Be a Mandatory Driving Test for People 75 and Up?

Last updated:

April 07, 2009
Driving The Volvo
Image by PhotoDu.de used under the creative commons attribution license.

Giving up the car keys is a painful passage for most drivers. Ideally, elder drivers recognize if and when they've become a hazard on the road and make the decision on their own to no longer drive.

Take my 93-year-old great aunt: "I miss driving more than anything else," she told me today. She's still razor sharp and amazingly spry, no chronic disorders beyond osteoporosis "and they recently found a tiny bit of high blood pressure." But when she moved to a new state three years ago to live with a niece, she decided, matter of factly, that for her, being 90 meant it was time to take no more chances and sell her car.

But like I said, she's still mentally sharp. When dementia enters the picture, the driver often lacks the self awareness or judgment to realize she's a growing road risk. Then what?

Then it's the family's worry burden.

Unless you live in Japan. There, beginning in June, everyone over age 75 who wants to renew a driver's license will be required to take a cognitive test, attend a lecture, and take an hour of special driver training.

The test lasts 30 minutes and involves:

  • Writing the current date and time
  • Looking at 14 illustrations (such as of animals) and being asked to write descriptions of them
  • Drawing a picture of a clock showing a certain time.

A mandatory cognitive test for older drivers sounds like a why-didn't-we-think-of-that idea. Some reasons why:

  • It transfers the burden of concern to the authorities "“ goodness knows they make a lot of other rules to help keep the roads safe.
  • It makes "the system" act like the "bad cop" in this fraught issue, so families don't have to be.
  • It's universal, so everyone of a certain age has to pass it. Three-fourths of elders in a trial in Japan passed completely, and only 2 percent showed definite decline. (Twenty-four percent showed slight decline, and these cases are counseled to talk to their families and doctors; it's not clear how long the license is renewed for.)
  • It's simple and considered accurate. The Japanese test was developed with experts on dementia.
  • It makes the wanna-be drivers share the cost of public safety "“ you have to pay for the test yourself, 650 yen (about $6.50).
  • It elevates awareness generally about the risks of dementia and driving.
  • It makes dementia-free older drivers like my great aunt feel good when they pass, more data they can factor into the complicated decision over whether to stay behind the wheel or take no more unnecessary chances.

What if you don't live in Japan and are one of the millions left worrying because someone with dementia driving has become an issue in your family? Be sure you know what to do if a dangerous driver refuses to stop driving.