California Driving Laws for Seniors and Older Drivers

Learn about driving provisions and special programs focused on keeping both California's older drivers and roadways safe.

Updated by , Attorney

In California, there are more than 5.5 million drivers over the age of 55—and more than 2.5 million of them are 70 or older. While the myriad rules and regulations enforced by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) apply to drivers of all ages and stages, the state imposes some special requirements and restrictions on older drivers.

California state rules are explained in more detail below, but a number of them focus on identifying and handling older drivers who may have become unsafe. Specifically, California:

  • requires drivers age 70 and older to renew their licenses in person and to take both a vision test and written test when doing so
  • accepts requests from family members and others for the DMV to conduct unsafe driver investigations, and
  • requires doctors who diagnose patients with Alzheimer's disease or other conditions that may make them unsafe drivers to report the diagnosis.

California License Renewal Rules for Older Drivers

Special rules apply to drivers who are 70 and older and seek to renew their licenses.

Time limits: Drivers age 70 and older must renew in person every five years. (The California Department of Motor Vehicles gave an automatic one-year extension to drivers whose licenses were set to expire from March 1 to Dec. 31 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vision test: Required at in-person renewal. DMV personnel will conduct a test free, or drivers can have an exam performed by an outside ophthalmologist or optometrist, who must complete a Report of Vision Examination and conduct the exam within six months of the renewal request.

Written test: Required at in-person renewal.

Road test: Required only if there are indications of driver impairment, based on a report by a law enforcement officer, a physician, or a family member.

Possible License Restrictions

The DMV can place restrictions or conditions on a person's driver's license after administering a driving test and discussing possible restrictions with him or her.

The most common restriction for older drivers is to require glasses or corrective contact lenses.

In California, other common requirements the DMV may impose on older drivers include:

  • no freeway driving
  • an additional right side mirror on a vehicle
  • no nighttime driving
  • time of day restrictions—for example, no driving during rush hour traffic
  • supports to ensure a proper driving position
  • geographic area restrictions, and
  • wearing bioptic telescopic lens when driving.

How to Request an Unsafe Driver Investigation in California

The California DMV will accept information from the driver him or herself, courts, police, other DMVs, family members, and virtually any other source. While anonymous reports of unsafe driving will not be accepted, anyone can ask that his or her name be kept confidential, and the DMV vows to honor that confidentiality "to the fullest extent possible."

There are two ways to request that the DMV review driving qualifications:

  • Write a letter identifying the driver who is causing the concern, giving specific reasons for making the report, and mail it to the local Driver Safety Office.
  • Complete a form, Request for Driver Reexamination, and mail it or take it to one of the DMV locations listed on the form.

Mandatory Reporting for Doctors

California is one of only a few states that require doctors who diagnose a patient with a disorder characterized by lapses of consciousness, Alzheimer‘s disease, or any other condition likely to impair driving to report that diagnosis to the local health department, which must forward it to the DMV, which in turn has the discretion to pull the patient's license or require a driving test.

California Driver Improvement Programs

Drivers can improve their skills by taking an education and training class specifically developed for older drivers. Look for local course offerings called Mature Driver Improvement Programs.

How to Get a License Reinstated

For information on how to get back a license that has been suspended or revoked in California, contact one of the DMV Driver Safety Offices located throughout the state.

California Ombudsman Program for Senior Drivers

The California DMV has a Senior Ombudsman Program aimed to keep older adults driving as long as they can do so safely.

The ombudsmen, located in several offices throughout the state, can help ensure that senior drivers are treated fairly and respectfully, and consistently with laws and regulations. They can assist in individual cases, and also conduct outreach seminars to groups aimed at promoting driver safety for seniors.

DMV Senior Ombudsmen are available at the following locations:

  • Sacramento, Northern California—916-657-6464
  • San Francisco, Oakland—510-563-8998
  • Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego—949-553-3573
  • Los Angeles, Oxnard—310-412-6103

How to Get Parking Placards or License Plates for a Disabled Driver

Disabled person parking placards and license plates can be issued to drivers who have impaired mobility if a licensed physician, surgeon, physician's assistant, nurse practitioner, or certified nurse-midwife certifies the condition.

The placards and plates are also available for those who have:

  • severe heart or circulatory disease
  • severe lung disease
  • a diagnosed disease or disorder that significantly limits the use of lower extremities
  • specific visual problems, including low-vision or partial-sightedness, or
  • the loss, or loss of the use, of one or both lower extremities or both hands.

To obtain a disabled placard or plate:

  • Complete and sign an Application for Disabled Person Placard or Plates.
  • Have a licensed physician, surgeon, chiropractor, optometrist, physician's assistant, nurse practitioner, or certified midwife sign the Doctor's Certification portion of the application—unless the driver has lost a lower extremity or both hands and appears in person at a local DMV office or has been previously assigned license plates for a disabled person.
  • Include a fee of $6 for a parking placard for a temporary condition; permanent plates and placards are free.
  • Mail the original application to the address on the form.

Learn More About California Driving Rules for Seniors

The DMV website has a wealth of information for California drivers, including links to the controlling laws and driver license handbooks in several different languages. Of special interest is the Senior Guide for Safe Driving, which includes advice on recognizing and assessing vision and cognitive impairment and conditions that may affect driving and the DMV web page dedicated to Senior Drivers.

You can find the nearest DMV office through an online search of Public Offices By Location.

Where to Find a Lawyer for Help

You can use Nolo's Lawyer Directory to find local lawyers experienced in representing older people who need help with auto accidents or traffic tickets.

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