Groups seek national standards on older drivers
A coming surge in the number of older drivers in the USA is prompting traffic safety groups to recommend national standards for measuring drivers’ medical and functional fitness.
In 37 states, the decision about when to take the keys away from an elderly driver is made by boards of physicians that advise the states’ licensing agencies. But the composition and guidelines of each board vary from state to state, and 13 states and the District of Columbia have no boards, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a non-profit organization representing the state officials who administer and enforce traffic laws.
The AAMVA, travel club AAA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Governors Highway Safety Association support stronger standards for existing medical boards and establishing them in states that don’t have them.
“We advocate for a more uniform way of evaluating medically at-risk drivers,” says Lori Cohen, an AAMVA program director.
“There are standards for commercial-vehicle operators. But it is not federally mandated in any way for passenger vehicles. We very much encourage jurisdictions to work with doctors so they are making the best, most sound decisions.”
The number of Americans ages 65 to 84 is expected to double to 61.9 million between 2000 and 2030, according to Census Bureau projections. The first of 79 million baby boomers are turning 60 this year.
Existing advisory boards range in size from three members to 25 members. Members usually are physicians who specialize in fields such as optometry, ophthalmology, internal medicine, neurology, orthopedics and geriatrics.
Such boards weigh which drivers with certain medical conditions can be allowed to continue driving – only during the daytime, for instance, or only within a certain distance of home.
“It’s so important to help people stay mobile, because if they’re not able to drive, in certain cases, their health declines,” says Bella Dinh-Zarr, AAA’s national director of traffic safety policy. Dinh-Zarr says there were 19.8 million licensed drivers age 70 or older in the USA in 2003.
She says older drivers often more readily accept the news they can no longer drive from medical professionals than from a son or daughter.
That’s where Barbara Harsha turned in 2003. After a series of fender-benders, her elderly father destroyed his car when he was hit by a truck in front of his Maryland home, says Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which supports highway safety programs of the states.
Harsha says she called Maryland’s medical advisory board, which sent two investigators to question her father about his condition and medications. He then took a simulated driving test, which he failed. He lost his license.
“It was a hardship for the family,” Harsha says. “They lived in a suburban home, and they didn’t have a car for a year before deciding to move to a retirement community. The boomer generation is faced with these tough decisions now. And, of course, we’re going to be older drivers in another 15 to 20 years.”