Column: Who's more dangerous behind the wheel — drivers 70 and older, or 30 and younger?

Lines stretches outside at the downtown Los Angeles DMV field office on Monday, Jan. 27.
A line stretches outside of the Department of Motor Vehicles field office in downtown Los Angeles. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

When you’re 40, 70 seems old. When you get there, not so much, and I’m closing in fast.

So when a reader complained that since Jan. 1, California drivers 70 and older have had to take a written test and an eye exam at a Department of Motor Vehicles office to get their licenses renewed, it got my attention.

Frank, who lives in North Hills, called it blatant age discrimination. Speaking of which, Frank asked me not to use his last name because, as an entertainment writer, he fears that revealing his age will work against him.

Frank was lucky enough to have his renewal come up last fall, when it was still possible to take care of it online — without a written or vision test. But his wife, Diane, will have to go to a DMV office when she’s up for renewal in December, even though she’s got no points against her for accidents or moving violations.

“No matter how you look at it, it’s discrimination,” said Diane, who thinks that if younger people with clean records don’t have to jump through any extra hoops, older drivers shouldn’t have to either.

Actually, the 70-and-older in-person requirement isn’t new. It was in place since 1978, until Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order for a temporary waiver during the COVID-19 pandemic. That waiver expired because the virus threat has waned, and we’re simply back to the way we were.

To be fair, for those of us who are older and not bionic, the eyes begin to go, reaction time fades, and driving at night can become more of a challenge. I've covered horrific deadly crashes in which the drivers were young and reckless, but it's still hard to forget the horrific 2003 crash in which an 86-year-old man lost control of his car and killed nine people, including a 3-year-old girl, at the Santa Monica farmers market.

More than a decade ago, my siblings and I had to have that sad conversation about whether to hide our father’s car keys — we even discussed reporting him to the DMV — because he was becoming a threat behind the wheel, even though he insisted he was as sharp as ever.

I thought about my dad again when I read that actor Dick Van Dyke, 97, recently crashed into a gate in Malibu during a rainstorm and suffered what were described as moderate injuries. I think it's fair to have a conversation about whether 97 is too old to be driving. And for anyone 70 and older who's dented a fender or kissed a fire hydrant, I don't have a problem with eye exams and driving tests.

Judi Snyder, of La Cañada, is in her 70s, and she's fine with the required in-person eye exam and knowledge test requirement. I bumped into her Wednesday as she strolled toward the Glendale DMV office for her renewal appointment.

“I just don’t have a problem with it. I think you need to put a stake in the ground somewhere,” Snyder said, and 70 strikes her as a fair number. And most, but not all, states have similar renewal requirements for older drivers.

Suzanne Arnaud, of San Jose, sees it differently. She was peeved about having to take the written exam, or knowledge test, as the DMV calls it. “I have never had an accident in 60 years of driving,” she wrote in a complaint published in "Mr. Roadshow," Gary Richards’ traffic column in the San Jose Mercury News.

When I reached Arnaud, 75, she'd already renewed her license, but she was still in a lather.

“I think it’s age discrimination, because to me, what they should be looking at is an individual’s driving record,” she said.

They also should be looking at what all of us can plainly see — highways and byways are racetracks, and the pandemic made driving even more dangerous because so many knuckleheads used the lighter traffic as an invitation to drive like maniacs. It's still crazy out there, but it's not Grandma and Grandpa who drive as if they're auditioning for parts in the "Fast and Furious."

Though I will admit that driving too slowly, as some older drivers tend to do, can be just as dangerous as going too fast.

So what can we learn from crash statistics?

First off, the number of older drivers has risen sharply in the U.S. because of the age wave. But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that as of 2018, the number of fatal crashes involving drivers 70 and older had "recently increased, but they remain down from their 1997 peak, even as the number of licensed older drivers and the miles they drive have increased."

The California Highway Patrol reports that in 2019, drivers 70 and older made up 10.4% of all licensed California drivers. But they were involved in only 7.2% of fatal crashes and 5.5% of injury crashes.

Two age groups stood out for being overrepresented in crashes.

Drivers 20-24 made up 8.1% of licensed drivers in California but were involved in 11.9% of fatal crashes and 12.5% of injury crashes. And folks 25-29 made up 10% of all drivers but were involved in 13.4% of fatal crashes and 12.8% of injury crashes.

A DMV spokesman said those numbers are misleading because younger drivers put in more miles than older drivers.

"Seniors are among the safest drivers on the road in terms of both collisions and convictions," said the spokesman. "However, when taking account of miles driven, collision rates (but not convictions) start to rise at age 70."

OK, but if drivers 70 and older drive less and are more inclined to take short trips to the post office and the supermarket, is the extra burden of testing justified?

Attorney Rodney Gould doesn't think so.

“A 70-year-old today is markedly different from what a 70-year-old was in, say, the 1970s," said Gould, whose San Fernando Valley law firm represents clients of all ages doing battle over license suspensions and other issues.

I won't go so far as to say that 70 is the new 50, but I'm with Gould. Since launching the Golden State column, I hear regularly from people 70 and older asking me to go watch them surf, play ice hockey, run marathons and launch second and third careers.

"People are generally in better health," said Gould, "and I don’t see anything to make me think that 70 should be the magic cutoff age.”

The knowledge test for drivers 70 and older is computerized, Gould said, and that’s an unfair challenge for people who didn’t grow up with computers. He said he’s arranged for clients to request that a DMV rep read the questions aloud, so the applicant can answer verbally.

By the way, if you're due for the DMV knowledge test, don't assume it's a snap. Several people recommended not just reading, but studying, the DMV test guide.

In San Jose, Arnaud said she struggled with a question about the fine for abandoning an animal on a highway. (It's punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, six months in jail, or both.)

Mike Lynch, a 73-year-old political consultant, said in an op-ed for the Modesto Bee that he flunked twice. On one failed effort, he missed two questions about blood-alcohol levels.

"I went home and studied for like three hours," Lynch told me, and he passed on his third try.

Lynch said despite his flunked exams, the entire process was relatively hassle-free at the Turlock DMV office, and he's not opposed to the in-person testing requirement.

I don't know that I'll be quite as compliant as Lynch when my license comes up for renewal. If I've had a ticket or two and plowed into a tree, sure, give me the eye exam, the written test and even a driving test.

But if I'm still clean, let it ride. Because 70 isn't what it used to be.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.