Elderly Drivers Pose Policy-Making Challenge

 

As the nation's population ages, states are looking for ways to weed out people who shouldn't drive.

Half the states have passed some form of elderly driver restrictions, usually laws that require older motorists to renew licenses more often and have their vision checked.

But while states have little trouble imposing special driving limits on accident-prone teenagers, such as limiting the number of passengers, imposing road restrictions on elderly drivers poses difficult policy-making challenges. Among the issues are how to avoid age discrimination and how to assess driving ability.

Drivers over age 75 had a higher rate of fatal accidents nationwide in 2001 and 2002 than any age group except for teenagers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The problem of fatal elderly crashes is expected to grow because by 2024, one in four U.S. drivers will be over age 65, according to the National Older Driver Research and Training Center.

Last summer an 87-year-old California man killed 10 pedestrians when he drove through an open-air market. The crash got national attention and prompted calls across the country for legislation, but state lawmakers have found no easy fix.

This year Florida began requiring vision tests for drivers over age 80. Virginia will require vision tests for octogenarians starting July 1.

Most state restrictions on older drivers focus on license renewal, not road rules. Only Illinois and New Hampshire require a road test for applicants over age 75.

Fifteen states -- Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Rhode Island and South Carolina -- require accelerated license renewal for older drivers. Illinois, for example, requires drivers ages 81 to 86 to renew their license every two years instead of the usual four, and drivers over 87 must renew annually.

Renewal-by-mail is not an option for drivers over 70 in Arizona, California, Illinois, Louisiana and New Hampshire.

Some state licensing laws prohibit treating people differently based on advanced age. Maryland, Nevada and Minnesota specify that age alone is not grounds for re-examination. But in Nevada, applicants for renewal-by-mail over age 70 must include a medical report.

This year the Hawaii Legislature is considering a study to look at banning driving after a certain age and toughening license renewal requirements. The Senate resolution also would direct the attorney general to resolve whether targeting older drivers constitutes age discrimination.

In New Jersey, where no laws limit older drivers, a Senate bill would devote $3 million to creating senior citizen "safe driving health centers," that would offer hospital-based medical and diagnostic services to improve older people's driving capacity. The centers would assess the need for a senior's car to be modified by adjusting brakes, mirrors, seating and steering. The bill also would offer auto insurance premium reductions for three years to older drivers who complete a safe driving program.

Not all states are tightening restrictions. Indiana dropped a road test requirement for older drivers in 1998 after its Bureau of Motor Vehicles decided it didn't have the authority to single out older Hoosiers.

In most states, elderly drivers decide when to hand over the keys, and often it's voluntary. Already one in five Americans over 65 -- more than 7 million people -- are non-drivers, according to the Department of Transportation.

Lisa D'Ambrosio, research associate at AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said, "The car represents freedom. Drivers generally voluntarily make changes and reduce their driving so they can continue to drive safely."

Some elderly drivers face a slowdown in response time, lose clarity in vision and hearing, have decreased muscle strength and flexibility, and may suffer drowsiness from medications. But predicting problem drivers isn't an exact science, despite researchers' efforts to develop assessment systems, said Sandra Rosenbloom, director of the Roy P. Drachman Institute for Land and Regional Development Studies at the University of Arizona.

"There's no proof that training sessions help. Testing practices at the state level are idiosyncratic. The Holy Grail is a cheap test," Rosenbloom said.

Besides, forcing older people off the roads and onto sidewalks is dangerous because elderly walkers are more likely to be killed as pedestrians than as motorists, Rosenbloom said.

With most elderly Americans living in the suburbs or rural areas, public transportation often isn't an answer, said Jane Hardin, a specialist on senior transportation at the Community Transportation Association of America.

A good model of elderly transportation is the Sunshine Bus Co.of St. Augustine, Fla., sponsored by the city's commission on aging, that offers rides to older people, Hardin said.

"If we don't want older people to drive, we need to provide them options," Hardin said.

 
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