Research seeks to identify, help dangerous drivers

Tests aim to predict future impairments

March 30, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Using sophisticated new screening tests for older drivers, researchers in Maryland are learning it is possible to identify dangerous drivers more accurately, and even to predict who will develop problems in the future.

The federally funded project, which is being watched nationally, is the most comprehensive study ever of older drivers. Its findings are considered doubly important because the first baby boomers will soon begin turning 65, eventually making up 25 percent of all motorists.

"I'm very encouraged about what this will help us do down the road," said Dr. Robert Raleigh, chief of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration's medical advisory board and leader of the project.

"Why should we wait until people have serious problems, lose their way, get in accidents?" he said. "My goal is to see people think about this the same way they think about cancer or heart screening. Where these tests prove useful in early detection, people can get treatment so they can stay active and well and independent."

A formal report of the research will not be released until later this year, but Raleigh summarized his preliminary findings yesterday at a meeting of the Maryland Research Consortium, the 35-agency group behind the study.

The consortium, which includes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, hopes to use the research to develop a model program that could be duplicated nationwide.

Of the 11 screening tests in the study, four that measure cognition and physical ability are proving reliable at predicting problems that cause older motorists to cut down on driving, perhaps unnecessarily.

Other tests in the study have found driver problems that standard MVA tests and doctor exams missed.

One 78-year-old motorist got a green light to drive from his physician and also passed an initial review by Raleigh's team. But more sophisticated tests revealed that the man had trouble turning his head, often making it impossible for him to see oncoming traffic. He was relying primarily on his rear and side-view mirrors to monitor other vehicles.

"That's a classic example of prevention," Raleigh said. "He could have walked out of here and continued driving as he had been."

Raleigh's team also uses a more sophisticated vision test that goes beyond the standard, brightly lighted eye chart and measures a person's ability to distinguish contrasts between light and dark.

"If someone doesn't do well on it, we have to alert them unequivocally not to drive in fog or rain or mist," Raleigh said.

Ideally, tests that uncover problems early mean drivers can get medical treatment or remedial driving lessons and safely resume driving. Some may need a couple of hours of instruction -- a "simple tune-up," as Raleigh put it. Others may need four or more hours of refresher classes. Sometimes, the problems call for a restricted license that limits the hours and distance a person may drive. The tests may show others they should not be on the road.

More than 3,500 Maryland motorists older than 55 have volunteered for the study. Yet one of the biggest questions remains unanswered: At what age do motorists begin to lose their driving skills? That answer is expected later this year.

Regardless of that age, Raleigh said he would not suggest a person lose driving privileges at a predetermined age. "I've examined 100-year-old drivers who are more functional than 70-year-old drivers," Raleigh said. "Age isn't it."

Instead, many predict that identifying a threshold age will spur legislation requiring automatic retesting of seniors at a certain age.

The Maryland Association of Women Highway Safety Leaders -- a nonprofit group that works for safer highways -- was among the supporters of a graduated-licensing law, aimed mainly at teen-agers, that went into effect two years ago. Only last year, senior drivers would have balked at the idea of a retesting program of their own, said 79-year-old Agnes Beaton, the group's executive director. Now, having visited many senior groups to discuss the testing and ways to continue driving safely, she said she feels differently.

"I think people are willing to consider it," said Beaton, a member of the research consortium. "I think they want these problems out in the open."

One phase of the project involves educating doctors, drivers, relatives and others about the many options seniors have to help them continue driving safely. Another task is to find options for seniors unable to continue driving.

Kathy Freund, founder of a unique transportation service for the elderly in Portland, Maine, explained an option yesterday to consortium members who had gathered in Glen Burnie.

Freund runs a nonprofit service that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, transporting the elderly anywhere they want to go in Portland and its suburbs. The service relies on volunteer drivers and on credit programs that encourage the community to help subsidize the program.

For example, a Shop-and-Ride feature means a store pays a portion of the ride cost when a customer is driven there to shop. Doctors do the same for patients who use the service to get to medical appointments. And volunteer drivers can stash ride credits for the time they served and use them when they need the rides.

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