A new future for elderly motorists across the nation -- including millions who might otherwise have to give up driving -- could take shape over the next two years because of a Maryland project that is the most comprehensive study ever of older drivers.
The study, which is being watched nationally, has two objectives: to develop sophisticated driving tests that can spot people at risk for accidents early on and to identify ways to help seniors remain safely behind the wheel as long as possible.
The number of older drivers involved in fatal traffic accidents increased by 33 percent between 1988 and 1998, according to a report released last month by the Road Information Program in Washington.
It may get worse, many experts fear. In 10 years, the first baby boomers will turn 65. That generation of senior citizens will eventually make up 25 percent of all drivers. Though states can ill afford millions of unsafe drivers, they are not eager to strip them of their mobility and independence.
"The reality is we're looking down the barrel," said Essie Wagner, a research psychologist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is funding the $750,000 Maryland project.
"Baby boomers have changed the face of every age group they've reached, and I have no reason to think it will be any different with this. We're not going to be able to pull the licenses out of their hands," Wagner said.
The options available last year to Shirley Goldstein of Pikesville illustrate how many seniors might be helped.
Goldstein lost her right to drive last fall in the way many elderly motorists do. An illness left the energetic 80-year-old confused and easily distracted. Her doctor concluded that she was in no shape to get behind the wheel of her Oldsmobile.
But for Goldstein, a widow who is proud of her self-reliance, it was not the end of driving.
After taking a special test and getting help from an occupational therapist, Goldstein got her license back last week with the blessing of the Motor Vehicle Administration.
That kind of help, which may become widely available, could benefit millions more.
"I'm used to being independent, and it's very important for me to come and go as I see fit," Goldstein said. Friday, she drove to Nordstrom on one of her first errands: buying a dress for a black-tie event. "I said I can drive, and I'm going to drive."
Occupational therapy is just one way of helping seniors continue to drive, said Dr. Robert Raleigh, chief of the MVA medical advisory board and the leader of the Maryland project.
The project -- by a consortium of more than 20 state agencies, including the State Highway Administration, the Office on Aging and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene -- is aimed at developing a model program that could be duplicated around the country.
One phase, which began a year ago, involves a battery of tests measuring vision, alertness, memory and reflexes of more than 2,000 older drivers in Maryland. Researchers plan to monitor these volunteers' driving records for two years and learn whether the tests can predict problem drivers.
"When older people have been asked what they think of this kind of test, a large number are receptive," Raleigh said. "If you're willing to be screened for cancer or heart disease, why not be screened for this?
"What we're trying to ultimately develop is a driving test that's valid, like a mammogram."
Last week, while renewing her license at the Glen Burnie MVA office, 68-year-old Laura Williams became one of the volunteers.
The last time she took a behind-the-wheel driving test was 50 years ago.
A retired Baltimore city employee, she drives every day. Although her skills remain sharp and she hasn't had an accident in years, she limits her long-distance and night driving.
"I think after anyone drives 10 or 20 years, they really should be tested again," she said. "I've known people in my age group whose reflexes are not as good as they used to be. A lot of people slow up. We get arthritis and a little bit of everything."
At the MVA, she was clocked while walking a straight line, connecting a series of numbers and letters on paper, and responding to fast-moving highway traffic depicted on a computer screen. She thinks testing should go further.
"Some of us have problems with hearing, and there was no test for that," she said.
Separate testing for seniors is a controversial idea, partly because there has been little research on which to base standards, but also because seniors -- a powerful voting bloc -- frown on it.
About half of states have special requirements for older drivers, most involving more frequent license renewals.
Only a few go further, requiring a medical exam or road tests past a certain age. In Maryland, where 284,000 licensed drivers are older than 70, seniors face no separate testing standard.
The American Association of Retired Persons endorses improved driver testing if it applies to everyone.