States grapple with grounding elderly drivers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Like most people in North Carolina, she's heard about the crash.

B.W. Harris read about the elderly grandmother who recently backed into a throng of schoolchildren in the papers, then she heard about it at church and the grocery store.

But when the septuagenarian gets behind the wheel of her blue Cutlass, she shakes those thoughts away.

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"I've been driving for all my adult life, I love driving, and I think I'm a better driver now than ever," she says. "I'd still like to be the one to judge when that's no longer true."

She might not be able to make that call much longer. After a decade of research and a series of high-profile crashes, 16 states, including North Carolina, are readying "driving while elderly" laws that would require more-frequent testing of senior citizens.

Supporters say the laws will make roads safer. Critics say they discriminate against the elderly. Regardless, with the oldest baby boomers now in their 50s, it's an issue that will determine whether more and more Americans can drive themselves to the local market.

"A lot of people are looking at this issue right now, trying to figure out something that's workable and politically acceptable," says Julie Rochman of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research arm of the insurance industry. "To get these bills passed requires a lot of political will, which can be very difficult to muster up."

After a 20-year crackdown on drunk drivers and teenage speedsters, accident figures - even with more and more cars on the roads - have held steady at record low levels for the past six years. To bring down deaths further, some observers say, states must target bad drivers.

In some states, that has meant more-frequent testing of drivers over 65, who have more accidents per mile driven than any other age group save teens. Thirteen states already have laws on the book, with some checking drivers over 80 as often as once a year.

In Missouri, for example, where the push to control older drivers began after a deadly wreck in 1991, people can already inform on bad drivers anonymously. The law is widely seen as a way to help worried family members get elderly relatives off the road.

In Washington, D.C., drivers 75 and older may have to have their reactions tested before the government renews their license. Thirty-five states, including North Carolina, already allow doctors to pull licenses of risky elderly drivers.

Yet some states have resisted. Massachusetts considers it discriminatory to impart age-based sanctions. And strong contingents of older voters in Minnesota and Florida headed off stricter testing schemes - a display of their political muscle.

To skirt the issue, some communities have simply placed larger signs at tricky intersections.

For Ms. Harris, the prospect of growing older without an auto in the drive is worrisome - like much of America, Raleigh, N.C., isn't known for its public transportation. She captains her Oldsmobile to church and on frequent errands to the pharmacy and grocery store, sticking to safe routes and rarely driving at night.

Many people call the stricter testing laws "possible prison sentences" for unfairly stranded drivers. Still, while sensitive of "casting the net too wide," Ms. Rochman and others say now is the time to pass the laws, before most of the baby boomers reach 65.

One in 4 drivers may be elderly by 2020, researchers say, many of them living in the suburbs and out of public transit's reach. Moreover, recent studies reveal patterns of problems among older drivers. The majority of fatal accidents by those over 80 occur at busy intersections. Also, popular prescription medications have been shown to play a role in a large number of wrecks involving the elderly.

According to a British study, 6 in 21 older drivers tested should not have been driving at all.

Still, seniors contribute to only about 18 percent of traffic deaths each year in the US.

"It's actually a myth that [older drivers] cause a lot of crashes," says John Eberhard of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Crashes involving the elderly, however, are often tinged with the bizarre, meaning they are covered in the local news.

Last year, for example, two motorists narrowly saved the life of a confused 89-year-old man in Abilene, Texas, who was driving his pick-up the wrong way on an interstate. In Arizona on Feb. 29, a car driven by a woman in her nineties crashed through four tents at a crafts fair in Sun City West, killing one person and injuring six others.

Although some believe age played a role in the North Carolina crash last month, police filed no charges against the driver. Indeed, the school is considering a new after-school loitering policy to control students.

A few high-profile cases should not prejudice lawmakers, argues Harris.

On the contrary, she says, elderly drivers usually have a firmer grasp on the consequences of accidents than others on the road. Most drive 4 m.p.h. slower, drive bigger cars, and have fewer passengers per trip.

"We're aware of the red tape involved when an accident happens, and what terrible injury a car can cause," says Harris. "We shouldn't be punished for compensating for that."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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