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When It's Time for Elderly Drivers to Quit

October 22, 1998|JEANNE WRIGHT

It's heartbreaking to see aging parents or loved ones lose their mental or physical ability to be safe drivers.

The warning signs can be scary. You see their reaction time slow significantly and dexterity diminish. They become easily confused or disoriented when driving or following directions. Vision and perception problems prevent them from accurately reading road signs. And illness or other physical limitations impair their ability to drive effectively.

Ultimately, it may be up to you to tell them that they can't drive anymore.

"Losing your driving privilege is a big deal whether you are 17 or 70," says Kenneth Adams of the Western Insurance Information Service, a consumer education group in Los Angeles.

But as the number of drivers 70 and older continues to rise, there is growing concern about the safety risks posed by those whose driving skills are impaired by mental or physical conditions.

Ten states, including California, now require doctors to report any dangerous medical condition that could impair a patient's driving. The requirements apply to drivers of all ages and cover a range of medical conditions, according to the Insurance Information Institute in Washington.

The California law, however, goes even further, specifically requiring doctors to report a diagnosis of dementia, a common symptom of Alzheimer's disease.

Indeed, the American Psychiatric Assn. announced last year that there is a "broad belief among psychiatrists that demented patients with moderate or severe impairment (such as those who cannot prepare simple meals, or do household chores, yard work or simple home repairs) pose an unacceptable risk and should not drive."

Citing that belief, the association recommended that psychiatrists or other physicians could "lend moral authority and support" to families that believe it is important to restrict a patient's driving by writing "Do Not Drive" on a prescription pad for the patient.

To protect doctors or close family members who report impaired or incompetent drivers to authorities, Missouri has enacted a law that protects their confidentiality, shielding them from lawsuits.

This heightened concern reflects, in part, reaction to a recent study of accidents in Sweden and Finland that found that one-third of drivers between the ages of 65 and 90 who were killed in car crashes had brain lesions like those often found in Alzheimer's disease patients. The study was cited in a report issued in June by the Insurance Information Institute.

Alzheimer's disease, according to the American Psychiatric Assn., affects about 5% to 8% of individuals older than 65. The figures increase to 15% to 20% for those older than 75, and 25% to 50% for those older than 85.

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With those percentages in mind, it is imperative that senior drivers get regular physical checkups, including vision testing. Family and friends also need to get involved in encouraging senior citizens to stay healthy and to watch them carefully for any warning signs that their driving skills have diminished, Western Insurance's Adams says.

To be sure, some of the safest drivers on the roads are senior citizens. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation says licensed older drivers have fewer accidents relative to the total population. That's in part because they drive less.

However, based on the number of miles they drive, older drivers have higher fatal accident rates. Statistics show that after the age of 75, driving ability declines rapidly and "it gets to be about the same [level] as teens," says Evan Nossoff, a spokesman with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Driver to driver, though, seniors are nowhere near as bad as teenagers," he says.

California, in its Health and Safety Code, has had the law requiring doctors to report incompetent drivers for well over a decade, Nossoff says. Referrals come from family doctors, emergency room doctors, family members and lawyers.

Once they turn 70, California drivers are required to renew their licenses in person. Unlike some states, California does not require senior citizens to renew their licenses more frequently than younger drivers.

When faced with telling loved ones that they should stop or restrict their driving, Adams says, "do it with compassion and love--don't make them feel that they can't be productive anymore."

Be vigilant in keeping track of how they are driving. Drive with them and try to determine whether they can see signs, follow directions and handle busy freeways, he suggests.

If they can manage driving with restrictions--such as daytime only or short distances--let them, Adams says. Driving is important because it can allow them to maintain a sense of accomplishment and freedom.

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail: highway1@latimes.com.

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