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Germany rejects skills test for elderly drivers

March 30, 2024

Many countries in Europe and around the world regularly test the driving skills of older people. But such tests are voluntary in Germany. Is that a safety risk?

Two men in a red car
Peter Mecking took his driving fitness check in CologneImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

In over 50 years behind the wheel, Peter Mecking has never caused an accident –– and he would like that record to continue. Now, at age 70, he has voluntarily undertaken a so-called "driving fitness check." He drove his red Cupra around his home city of Cologne for 45 minutes, under the close observation of driving instructor Dominik Wirtz.

Mecking generally drives about 100 kilometers (62 miles) a day. For him, the test was a matter of course.

"I am taking it because there does come a point when you should stop driving, due to diminishing mental and physical performance," he told DW. "And if someone told me I should stop driving, I would accept that, too. Because I would be putting myself and others in danger on the road."

Two men sit in a red car, smiling at the camera
Driving instructor Dominik Wirtz (left) thinks older people who don't come for the voluntary test are the problem, rather than those who doImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

For the test, driving instructor Wirtz navigated Mecking through Cologne's streets, and then to the highway. He watched whether Mecking was keeping to the speed limit, using lanes properly and keeping a safe distance from the cars ahead. And also whether he was respecting the right-of-way and showing consideration to cyclists, e-scooters and pedestrians.

Mecking mastered the 45-minute test with confidence. His driving skills were praised by the instructor, whose only advice was that the 70-year-old should check his blind spots more often.

Millions of elderly drivers in Germany

Ten million people over the age of 65 have a driver's license in Germany, and more and more of them are voluntarily having their driving skills checked. But driving instructors aren't able to take away their license, if they think it's necessary –– they can only provide feedback.

"I'm currently overseeing two senior driving tests a week," Wirtz told DW. "The people who take the test are sensible and open-minded –– they are open to criticism –– I tell most that they can keep driving. It's the people who don't come that are the problem. They stay under the radar."

The debate about mandatory testing of elderly drivers recently flared up in Germany, after an 83-year-old in Berlin drove onto a bike path to avoid a traffic jam, causing an accident in which a mother and her 4-year-old child were killed.

Wirtz said he did occasionally test people who should no longer be behind the wheel. "There were two checks after which I had to inform the seniors that it would not be good if they kept driving. In one case, the man stopped the car when the traffic light was green [...] and when it turned red, he wanted to drive onto the intersection."

"When I give them such feedback, it always hits them hard," he added.

The greatest challenges facing elderly drivers are having to constantly watch all of the traffic at once, the ability to concentrate and reaction time.

A general view of a plenary session at the European Parliament
The European Parliament voted against introducing mandatory tests for seniors, though many EU countries already have themImage: Frédéric Marvaux/European Union

The European Commission recently proposed mandatory health tests for older drivers, including a vision and hearing test every five years for drivers over 70. But the proposal was rejected by the European Parliament in Strasbourg at the end of February, which now means individual EU countries can decide whether they wish to introduce compulsory tests. Germany, in particular, raised objections to the proposal.

"We cannot put state regulations in place of people's personal responsibility," said German Transport Minister Volker Wissing, a member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP). "And we cannot complain about bureaucratic hurdles, while at the same time creating new, unnecessary bureaucracy."

In many places, health checks are standard

Germany's stance on mandatory testing wasn't popular with many of its neighboring countries. Health checks for senior drivers have long been standard in 14 EU countries. In Spain, a mandatory test is required every five years from the age of 65. In the Czech Republic, the testing starts at 60. In Portugal, it's required from 50.

Elderly drivers are especially scrutinized in Italy, a car-loving country, and there is even a compulsory health check for drivers under the age of 50. It's required again after 10 years, and then every five years. When drivers turn 70, the test is compulsory every three years, and after 80, every two years. People over the age of 80 must also submit a medical certificate proving they are free from diabetes and heart disease.

Japan even tests elderly drivers for signs of dementia.

German Transport Minister Volker Wissing
German Transport Minister Volker Wissing thinks mandatory driving tests for seniors would cause needless bureaucracyImage: Jens Krick/Flashpic/picture alliance

Germany's Transport Ministry and the ADAC –– the largest automobile association in Europe –– have both said older people have much more driving experience, and that the accident figures published by Germany's Federal Statistical Office put their skills in a positive light.

Figures from 2022 show that in Germany, 77,700 drivers over the age of 65 were involved in accidents causing personal injury, the equivalent of 15% of all accidents causing injury that year. But seniors comprise 22% of Germany's population –– a much higher percentage.

Does that prove that elderly drivers are not a major safety risk on the roads? Consider another analysis by the same Federal Statistical Office, which tells another story: when drivers over the age of 75 cause an accident, they are responsible almost 77% of the time. That is a higher percentage than that of novice drivers between the ages of 18 and 20.

Compulsory driving test after 75?

Kirstin Zeidler, who conducts accident research for insurance companies, believes the voluntary 45-minute "driving fitness check" should be made compulsory for 75-year-olds, and should be called "feedback drives."

"They are not about stripping people of their driver's license," she told DW. "On the contrary: they are meant to help people maintain their mobility, to help them continue driving for as long as possible, while providing them with information on how it do it well, and not endanger themselves or others."

She said, for example, that driving instructors should give seniors the kind of advice that Wirtz does: don't drive at night or during rush hour, don't drive in big cities. Instead, limit yourself to familiar routes –– to the doctor, the pharmacy or the supermarket.

Who's going to care for Germany's aging population?

But one aspect of the testing is dramatic. When an elderly person loses their driver's license, it can trigger a major change in their lives –– they lose autonomy, and in some cases they lose some control over their lives.

Zeidler has a recommendation for compulsory tests. "Other countries have medical health checks done at a doctor's office. We believe that approach is wrong," she said, explaining that driving problems were more a result of gradually dwindling cognitive abilities than physical health. Driving well depended on "recognizing situations and reacting quickly," she explained.

"We should be checking driving behaviors and skills in real traffic situations," she said.

This article was originally written in German.

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Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.