Age Fright

Though none but the oldest of elderly drivers pose much of a safety threat to others, the number of older drivers is growing fast, and most states do relatively little to screen out those who should no longer drive.

In July, an elderly man in his sport utility vehicle accidentally hit the gas pedal instead of his brake while in his driveway in Sarasota, Fla. He struck and killed his 72-year-old wife.

The next day in Santa Monica, Calif., 86-year-old Russell Weller, who also confused his brake and accelerator pedals, according to police, plowed through a farmer’s market. Ten people died, and dozens were injured.

Nine days later, a 79-year-old Palm Coast, Fla., man injured several people when his station wagon crashed through a farmers market. The driver, who is disabled, claimed his accelerator got stuck, though police who tested it afterwards said it appeared to work properly.

Such incidents thrust the controversial issue of relicensing older drivers into the forefront with other matters of highway safety. Though none but the oldest of elderly drivers pose much of a safety threat to others, the number of older drivers is growing fast, and most states do relatively little to screen out those who should no longer drive.

Commercial driver’s license applicants of any age must pass not only a vision test but a full medical exam and have it renewed every two years. Other than vision tests, no comparable exam is routinely required for a non-commercial license.

Maturing baby boomers have made elderly drivers a rapidly growing segment of those behind the wheel. In 2001, for example, licensed drivers age 65 or older jumped from 10 percent to 14 percent of all drivers, Alfa Insurance Co. says.

Despite such growth, a relatively small proportion of older people drive, especially those older than 85. Also, older drivers usually drive infrequently and for short distances on familiar, local routes, so they make up a very small proportion of those on the highway. They have low rates of speeding, drunk driving and night driving.

However, older drivers are keeping their licenses longer and driving more miles than before, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Despite those facts, 37 states have no age-based provision for license renewal, according to Alfa.

States do, though, have broad authority to require medical checks, road tests or other verification that a renewal applicant is qualified to drive. This happens when something brings the applicant to an official’s attention, such as a bad driving record or obvious physical or mental problems.

Still, impairments often are not evident during a brief encounter at a license office. Much of the physical deterioration common to aging also affects driving abilities: dementia, slow reaction time, ability to judge spatial relationships, poor peripheral vision, blind spots due to cataracts, strokes or eye disease, and arthritis and other conditions that restrict agility, such as being able to look over the shoulder.

In California, legislators shied away from a proposal that could expose certain impairments and would help prevent accidents such as the one in Santa Monica. In 2000, the legislature passed a bill sponsored by former state Sen. Tom Hayden, but deleted a key portion – that drivers 75 or older pass a behind-the-wheel test before renewing a license. It was killed after lobbying by AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), which considers age-based driving restrictions discriminatory. The final version included driving tests for medical reasons, but deleted any reference to age, including mandatory driving tests for people older than 70.

Upon initial application for a license, applicants in most states are asked about serious physical conditions. If an applicant says a condition is present, various responses follow, such as adding a restriction to the license or requiring a physician’s statement. Some states don’t ask about some of eight serious conditions tracked by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators – stroke, sleep disorder, heart condition, heart attack, convulsions, seizures, blackouts and diabetes – according to a survey by AAMVA. Washington and Hawaii do not screen for any of the eight.

Drivers 85 and older have the highest highway fatality rate – even higher than the youngest drivers – according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s because starting about age 60, drivers become frail and tend to sustain serious injuries more easily in a crash, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“At age 75, older drivers do begin to be markedly overinvolved in crashes,” say IIHS materials. The elderly “are not a threat to other drivers, in terms of fatal wrecks, until they pass age 85,” says Susan Ferguson, senior vice president for research for the institute.

John Eberhard, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s older driver research, has said that certain screening tests show some effectiveness in identifying older drivers who should stop driving. The problem, he and others say, is finding tests that would identify those likely to crash without denying licenses to large numbers of people who pose little risk.

“It’s tough to try and take someone’s license away from them, and at the same time, you have to consider public safety over personal desires,” says Donald Hogan, of Monroe, La., an owner-operator leased to Tango Transport of Louisiana. “I don’t think most older people realize their reflexes have slowed down to the point that they have.”

Hogan advocates skills testing, as does Regg Lintz of California, a company driver with U.S. Xpress. “I think everybody ought to be road-tested every four years – that way you don’t have any age discrimination against anybody,” Lintz says. “It’s not a constitutional right to drive a car.”

Following the Santa Monica incident, ex-Sen. Hayden expressed similar sentiments: “Having a driver’s license is not an absolute right, but a privilege based on proven competency to drive. Is it asking too much that Californians periodically demonstrate their continued ability to drive on our congested streets and highways?”


SCREENING OLDER DRIVERS

States’ license renewal practices and limits vary considerably. Many have little or no age-based procedures to identify drivers who are more likely to have physical or mental impairments that would affect driving.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and other sources, here is a summary of procedures that can be used in screening older drivers.

ACCELERATED RENEWAL. States’ renewal periods range from two to eight years. Thirteen states require more frequent renewals for drivers after a certain age, typically 65 or 70.

RENEWAL RESTRICTIONS. Most states require renewal applicants to appear in person. Some states with mail renewals do not allow them after a certain age.

ROAD TEST. Only Illinois and New Hampshire have age-based road tests, requiring them of renewal applicants 75 or older.

VISION TEST. About half the states require a vision test at every renewal; some others require them with less frequency. Some states require vision tests after a certain age. Florida, for example, this year enacted a measure that requires people 80 and older to pass a vision test.

Several states are considering age-related legislation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. However, some measures are not screening-related, but are intended to protect older drivers’ rights, such as placing restrictions on insurance companies.


OLDER DRIVER LIMITATIONS GETTING NATIONAL ATTENTION

America’s Road Team, the trucking industry ambassadors sponsored by the American Trucking Associations and Volvo Trucks, announced last month that older drivers will be added to the many groups they counsel on how to safely share the road with large trucks. They’ll also offer their seasoned advice for everyday safe driving.

The Road Team’s effort is prompted by new concerns over senior drivers following the recent incident in Santa Monica, Calif., where an 86-year-old man drove into a crowd, killing 10 people.

The nation’s 20 million drivers aged 70 or older rank low in aggressive driving acts, but they rank high in accidents involving comprehension and reaction time, such as seeing and obeying traffic signs, failure to observe rights-of-way, and crashes when backing up, says ATA.

Older drivers “have to become more aware for their own safety,” says Road Team captain Garland Woods of ABF Freight Systems. “They also have to be honest with themselves on what they can and cannot do and change their driving to fit.”

Among other signs that the fitness of elderly drivers is being recognized as an area that needs closer scrutiny:

  • The American Medical Association this year issued guidelines for doctors to assess older patients’ driving abilities and launched a program to train doctors regarding fitness to drive.
  • The federal government recently earmarked $1.6 million to launch the National Older Drivers Research Center.
  • The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is conducting a Grand Driver Program in the Washington, D.C., area, which spokesman Jason King says is the first such initiative. “It’s designed to get older drivers and those who care about older drivers to talk about the issue of age and driving and how it can affect your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle,” King says.
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