MVA to test older driver Elderly motorists would be asked to volunteer for exams

No risk to driving rights

U.S.-sponsored study will start tomorrow and last six months

November 11, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Moving gingerly into a politically touchy area, Maryland officials are launching a study this week aimed at spotting -- and helping -- the elderly driver who might pose a danger on the highway because of failing body or mind.

Starting tomorrow, the Motor Vehicle Administration will ask older drivers to take a no-risk battery of tests designed to measure their agility, memory and vision.

Officials stress that the tests, to be offered at three MVA branch offices and at senior centers around the state, will not affect the volunteers' driving privileges. It might be a decade, they say, before the state has enough information from the federally sponsored study to tighten license renewal requirements for older motorists.

"Our goal isn't to take their licenses away," said Dr. Robert L. Raleigh, chief of MVA's medical advisory board. "Our goal is to keep them on the road -- but safe."

Teen-agers are, far and away, the most crash-prone age group on the highways, but older drivers rank second.

Older motorists have fewer crashes than any other age group, mainly because they drive less. But the crash rate per mile driven for motorists over the age of 75 is almost four times that of most other drivers. Also, women ages 85 and older have as much chance of being in an accident as teens do.

Though Maryland imposes no special requirements on its 430,000 drivers ages 65 or older, a dozen states make elderly motorists renew their licenses more frequently, take vision and other tests or submit a doctor's certificate.

The American Association of Retired Persons has fought age-based driving restrictions, and a federal safety expert says that despite a decade of study, there is no ready way to identify which older drivers pose risks.

In Maryland, MVA's medical advisory board discreetly reviews older drivers whom relatives or friends have anonymously reported. Many drivers surrender their licenses as a result, but they may refuse to cooperate and keep driving.

Politically problematic

"We know there's a problem, but the politically acceptable solutions just don't seem to be there," said Julie Rochman, spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Of older people, she noted, "They vote in large numbers, and if you do something too restrictive, they'll vote you out of office."

Other safety advocates say identifying the problem drivers is more complicated than that.

"It's taken this long because we've been trying to find out which, if any, of the groups of elderly are really a problem," explained John W. Eberhard, senior research psychologist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Most older drivers are as safe as their younger counterparts, Eberhard says. Those with flagging reflexes and vision compensate by driving slower or by staying off the road at night. Some give up their licenses voluntarily because they no longer feel safe driving.

The drivers at greatest risk, he added, are those least able to recognize it -- those with difficulty processing what they see or hear, or whose minds wander.

MVA Administrator Anne S. Ferro said Maryland wants to ensure the safety of older drivers partly because aging Baby Boomers are expected to double the ranks of motorists ages 65 and over by 2020.

It's a public health issue, she said -- aimed not just at preventing accidents but at maintaining a lifeline for the elderly. Studies show older people are more likely to suffer depression if they can no longer get around on their own.

So the MVA has joined with two dozen state and national groups to figure out how to help older drivers stay safely behind the wheel, when to restrict them and what other transportation can be provided if they must surrender their licenses.

20 minutes for 9 tests

The six-month study beginning this week is intended to validate several tests that aim to measure driving skills.

The eight or nine tests will take no more than 15 to 20 minutes, officials said. Some tests ask for simple demonstrations of a person's mobility, such as walking, raising arms or turning the head to look over the shoulder. Volunteers also will be asked to recall words spoken to them, connect dots on paper and take computerized test of peripheral vision. MVA's standard eye test does not measure what a driver needs to see and react to, experts said.

Raleigh, who is 73 and head of MVA's driver safety research, said the agency will track the driving records of about 5,000 volunteers during the next two years to see how well the tests correlate with accidents and traffic violations. Then the state will decide whether to incorporate the tests into the license renewal process, or to continue the research.

"It's a very sensitive issue," he said, adding that he hopes to convince older people that testing their driving skills is as important as going to the doctor. Helping older drivers see if their skills have deteriorated might be enough to get them to regulate themselves, Raleigh noted.

For at least one older driver, the prospect of being tested stirs conflicting feelings.

"The question is, when are they going to ask us to get off the road?" asked Chris, a retired 83-year-old truck driver, after sitting through a two-hour meeting on the new tests Monday at the East Columbia Senior Center.

Chris, who spoke on condition that his full name not be published, said he has driven ticket-free for the past 40 years, though he got a warning recently for missing a "No Turn on Red" sign.

"Everyone wants to keep his license as long as he can, but sooner or later the time comes," he said. Chris said he hopes the state handles that time with sensitivity.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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