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Comment: DMV must reign in unsafe or impaired elderly drivers

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  • 2/10 SF Chronicle
    Published Wednesday, February 10, 2010, by the San Francisco Chronicle Comment Elderly drivers need more oversight By John Moir With his 91st birthday just
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 10, 2010
      Published Wednesday, February 10, 2010, by the San Francisco Chronicle

      Comment

      Elderly drivers need more oversight

      By John Moir

      With his 91st birthday just weeks away, my father-in-law announced plans to renew his driver's license. My wife and I looked at one another in dismay. Surely, we thought, the California DMV would put the brakes on this foolishness. Instead, we received a crash course in our state's dangerously lax system for licensing older drivers.

      When my father-in-law showed up at his local DMV office, he received a perfunctory vision check and a multiple-choice exam that he managed to pass on a repeat attempt.

      That was it.

      Despite his advanced age, no driving test was required. No medical records were checked to determine if he had a condition that might impair his driving. A DMV clerk snapped his picture, and my 91-year-old father-in-law drove away with an unrestricted license good for five years.

      In granting my father-in-law full driving privileges until he was 96, the DMV licensed a man whose mental and physical abilities reflect his age. He has a serious heart condition, poor hearing and a slow reaction time.

      According to the California DMV's own report on collision rates for teens and seniors -- the two most at-risk groups -- at age 70 the number of collisions for both men and women begin to increase. After age 80, the rise of at-fault accidents is "particularly dramatic."

      Unlike teen drivers who face licensing restrictions, California does not even evaluate drivers in their 80s and beyond for declines in their mental or physical ability.

      As the number of older drivers increases, California needs to require better driving evaluations. One possible model is an inexpensive and easy-to-administer assessment battery developed by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

      Currently, all a concerned family member can do to stop an impaired elderly driver is to "anonymously" petition the DMV to have a driving test administered. But this can be difficult and often thrusts loved ones into a maelstrom of high-voltage family dynamics.

      In our case, my wife could not bring herself to fill out the form. It would be obvious that we had requested it, and it was certain to provoke a confrontation with her parents.

      As we turned to friends and therapists for advice, we encountered an outpouring of frustration about the DMV's laissez-faire licensing practices. We heard stories of desperate family members disconnecting battery cables and hiding keys. The DMV's lack of oversight shifts the responsibility for monitoring elderly drivers to family and friends who do not have the objectivity or the authority to help senior drivers make what is often a difficult decision.

      Recently, my father-in-law suffered a mild heart attack, and his doctor ordered him to stop driving. We were lucky; we found a way out before tragedy struck.

      But how many stories do we need to hear about impaired older drivers making fatal misjudgments before sensible precautions are instituted?

      We must end this madness. At age 91, no one should be granted an unrestricted five-year license.

      John Moir is a writer in Santa Cruz.
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