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California and the West

Hayden Measure Would Require Drivers Over 75 to Pass Road Test

Safety: He says the group is involved in a high proportion of deadly crashes. Advocates for seniors call the bill discriminatory and favor more study.

May 03, 1999|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — If state Sen. Tom Hayden and a grieving father named Mark Mitock get their way, California motorists age 75 and older will have to pass a behind-the-wheel test as a condition of renewing their driver's licenses.

For many, if not most, it would be the first road test of their skills since they received their driver's licenses as teenagers.

Further, if Hayden's bill becomes law, it will abolish California's historic--and unpublicized--practice of issuing licenses to a small number of drivers whose vision is so bad they are virtually blind.

The bill (SB 335) also would require increasingly frequent license renewals of drivers age 80, 83, 86, 90 and older. They would also have to take the written test as they do now.

"This bill is about saving lives and reducing unnecessary car crashes," Hayden said.

He cited a Department of Motor Vehicles study that found that older drivers are involved in a disproportionate number of deadly crashes in California compared to younger motorists.

"For whatever reason, we have been very lax as a state in our approach to drivers whose reflexes have declined as they age," the Los Angeles Democrat said in an interview.

The bill, named after Brandi Mitock, a Santa Monica teenager killed by a 96-year-old driver with a history of strokes, cleared the Senate Transportation Committee unanimously, but faces a tough fight from senior citizens who fear they may lose their driving privileges altogether.

The senior citizens lobby, whose constituents pack serious political clout during elections, wants to slam the brakes on the bill.

The lobby supports creating a minimum vision standard in the law that would eliminate the loophole that enables some virtually blind people to qualify for a license.

But advocates for seniors oppose as unfair and discriminatory the imposition of behind-the-wheel testing of older drivers simply because of their age.

"We do want the roads to be safe for everybody, but we don't think you should just single out older people," said Helen Savage, state legislative coordinator for the American Assn. of Retired Persons.

Savage said the bill would lump together all people age 75 and older without regard for individual characteristics, such as their driving records or their ability to safely operate an automobile.

Of California's 20.7 million licensed drivers, 955,000 are 75 or older, including 40 who are older than 100, the DMV reports.

In a recent study, the DMV said drivers 65 and older made up 12% of licensed drivers, but were involved in 17% of fatal crashes, causing 60% of the accidents.

The study found that older drivers were increasingly involved in both death and injury accidents, mainly because of the state's growing number of seniors. It said a survey of all collisions found that 12% involved seniors, who were at fault in more than half of them.

"After age 80, there is a sharp decline in driving ability, although many drivers continue driving safely. Drivers over 80 are more than twice as likely to be at fault in a fatal collision than the average driver," said DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff.

In 1989, the federal Department of Transportation said it reviewed various studies and concluded that a "substantial number" of crashes involving senior drivers were at least partially attributable to worsening vision, cognitive confusion or other age-related physical, mental and medical impairments.

A cautionary note was struck, however, by a 1997 state DMV report saying that "chronological age per se is not a reliable measure of collision risk." It said older adults may vary considerably in their driving skills as well as in their mental and physical abilities.

In California, there is no minimum vision requirement in state law before a driver can be licensed. Rather, it is left to the judgment of the DMV whether or not an applicant can see well enough to drive safely.

However, the applicant must be able to pass the simple "alphabet" test. Millions do with the help of common corrective glasses.

But others with especially bad vision may take the test wearing powerful magnification aides known as bioptic telescopic lenses. "We have no basis in law to say you cannot wear them," the DMV's Nossoff said.

The Hayden bill would establish a minimum standard. It would prohibit issuance of a license to anyone whose best corrected vision was 20/200 or worse in the applicant's better eye. It also would ban the use of bioptic telescopic lenses during the vision test.

Advocates for seniors favor more study before major driving restrictions are imposed, including checking the limitations placed on older drivers in other states.

Any California test must be "appropriate for identifying the drivers who are likely to cause an accident," Savage said.

"The majority of our people are concerned, angry and scared. They haven't been tested for decades and they are afraid they are going to lose their mobility," Savage said.

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