A Brief History
On March 26, 1934, the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland instituted their first ever practical examination of automobile drivers’ competence in order to be issued a driver’s license. The UK, however, was way behind the trend to require a driver’s test, as France had instituted the dreaded procedure way back in 1899! The United States lagged behind their European brethren in licensing drivers, although by 1918 all 48 states required license plates on motor vehicles. When Britain started requiring a driving test that needed to be passed to get a driver’s license the Us had only 39 of the 48 states requiring such an exam.
Early in the automobile era a prospective driver could expect to be trained in the fine art of driving by the car salesperson, or perhaps a family member or friend if that other person had the experience. In the US, the YMCA started offering driving instruction, and high schools began offering school related drivers’ education in the 1930’s. Among the states and territories of the United States, there are a variety of testing procedures and age requirements for getting a driver’s license or a learner’s permit. Some states allow drivers of only 14 years age to obtain a learner’s permit, and in South Dakota a teen as young as 14 years and 3 months old can be issued a restricted (some states may call it “probationary”) driver’s license. The majority of states require a prospective driver be either 15 or 16 to get a learner’s permit and 16 to be issued either a restricted or a full privilege driver’s license. Some states allow younger teens to get a driver’s license based on a family hardship making such a license a vital necessity for the good of the family.
Driving tests are commonly constructed in 2 parts, a written exam, usually administered before issuing a learner’s permit, and a practical driving test of rudimentary driving skills. There are no standardized such tests in the various states. The old familiar parallel parking test has largely been replaced by other driver’s maneuverability tests to demonstrate driving proficiency.
The failure rate for first time takers of the driving proficiency test is over 50% in the US, while in the UK prospective drivers have a rather lackluster 43% passing rate. New drivers seem to fare a bit better on the written exam, with a passing rate of over 50% in the UK, though often not by much, and a disappointing passing rate of only 44% on the written exam in the US! (Seriously, it is not that hard. Makes you wonder about the collective IQ of Americans.) Along with school drivers’ education programs, private driving schools are a thriving business in the US. Many states require the taking and passing of an approved drivers’ education course for eligibility to take the driver’s exam, and many insurance companies offer discounts to new drivers that have passed such a class. Other categories of driving licenses such as heavy trucks and commercial licenses are also offered and required for certain applications, with a host of other testing and performance criteria.
While a minimum age for getting a driver’s license is a widely accepted idea, how about a maximum age? Prince Phillip of the UK, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, made the news recently by his bumbling driving at the advanced age of 97 years old. Public outcry due to fear of indulging this old man’s desire to drive leading to potential danger to the public caused enough pressure to get him to give up his driving license. Statistics indicate that while older drivers (ie, elderly drivers over 70 years old) make up only 9% of American drivers, they are involved in around 14% of fatal accidents. When you consider that the old people drive far fewer miles, the implication is that having elderly folks on the road is a danger to the public as well as to themselves. In fact, 17% of fatal auto vs. pedestrian accidents involve an elderly driver, almost double the percentage of elderly drivers on the road.
What to do about older drivers with decreased sensory skills and reaction times? While no states currently demand new tests for older drivers, California does have a requirement that drivers over 70 years old must be retested if they have 2 or more accidents within a year. (California also requires any age driver be retested if they are involved in a fatal crash or involved in 3 crashes in a single year.) Other states have requirements that physicians report people with certain physical problems to the state DMV in order that the affected person be either cleared medically or by driving tests to be allowed to continue or resume driving. In Ohio, a police officer may fill out a form requiring either a medical exam or a requirement for retesting of any driver, regardless of age, though normally this statute is seen as a tool to get infirm drivers out from behind the steering wheel.
Why not just require old people of a given age (how do you pick what age?) to be retested every so often? Because old people claim age discrimination. Obviously, there is an enormous difference in the physical health and driving abilities of old people, or any people for that matter. Age alone is not a particularly good criteria for assuming diminished driving skills. Unfortunately, many police officers are reluctant to force elderly drivers to be retested or get a medical exam, as sympathy for the old folks and their families is a major limiting factor. In that regard, the families of elderly drivers can also be the limiting factor on an obviously dangerous old driver, but again, practical considerations and convenience give younger family members reason to hesitate to take away driving privileges from their older relatives. States struggle to deal with the subject of decreased driving ability with increased age, while trying to avoid undue hardship or discrimination against the elderly. The issue, as they say, is easier said than done. The issue of allowing older drivers to renew their license like everyone else has been a hot topic in Florida, a state with many elderly people. A sort of compromise in Florida has resulted in enhanced vision testing of elderly drivers.
Question for students (and subscribers): How young should we allow new drivers to be issued a learner’s permit? How young should a person be allowed to have a driver’s license? Should there be mandatory testing for older drivers at a certain age? What age? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Dugan, Elizabeth. The Driving Dilemma: The Complete Resource Guide for Older Drivers and Their Families. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2006.
Louis, Robert. The Offensive Driver: A Satirical Commentary On The Chaos Of Driving In America. CreateSpace, 2008.
Parish, Julian. The Essential Guide to Driving in Europe. Veloce Publishing, 2016.
Singer, Andy. Why We Drive: The Past, Present, and Future of Automobiles in America. Microcosm Publishing, 2012.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of a Walter Princ sedan – Fiat 522 (1934), is in the public domain because its copyright has expired and its author is anonymous. This applies to the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of 70 years after the work was made available to the public and the author never disclosed their identity.