MERRIMACK, N.H. — MERRIMACK, N. H. -- Here in New Hampshire, where the state motto is "Live Free or Die," drivers over 18 do not even have to wear seat belts -- yet the state strictly enforces one of the country's toughest laws governing older drivers.
That's just fine with Elvin Frame, a retired electronics executive who helped talk his own father into giving up his driver's license at age 90. Frame spent his 76th birthday at the motor vehicles office here this week, taking the road test required of all drivers his age -- and maintained he was glad his state demands road tests for older motorists. "If I can't drive properly," he said, "I don't want to be on the road."
Statistics suggest that the law affecting every New Hampshire driver "reaching his or her 75th birthday" has been successful. Granite State motorists over 70 were at fault in 13 fatal crashes, 11% of last year's total, according to state figures. Nationally, drivers over 70 were responsible for 13% of last year's traffic fatalities.
And each month, between 15% and 18% of drivers 75 and older lose their licenses here because they flunk the mandatory road test.
"Quite honestly," said state motor vehicles director Virginia Beecher, "I have always felt that New Hampshire was leading the pack on this issue." It adopted the statute in 1955.
Illinois in 1990 became the only state to follow New Hampshire's lead. Along with compelling anyone 75 or older to take a road test when renewing a driver's license, Illinois went a step further -- granting only two-year license extensions to motorists 81 to 86 who pass road tests. Drivers 87 and older in Illinois may extend licenses for only one year.
Figures from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation show that motorists age 70 and older make up 9% of the country's drivers -- about 18.9 million motorists. That figure is expected to jump to more than 30 million within the next 20 years. Older drivers also are more vulnerable. The American Assn. of Motor Vehicle Administrators says a 75-year-old driver is three times more likely to die in a car crash than a 20-year-old.
The danger older drivers may pose to others -- and the risks they face themselves -- were tragically illustrated Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif., when 86-year-old George Russell Weller drove his car into a crowded farmers market, killing 10 and injuring dozens.
Beecher, who not long ago had to persuade her elderly mother to give up her car keys, called the accident inexcusable: "Safety officials have an obligation to the citizens to reexamine people of that age."
At national meetings, Beecher said, she makes a habit of encouraging other states to adopt similar policies to regulate elderly drivers.
"Basically, what I hear is, they won't do it because they say it is discriminatory," she said, explaining that her state gets around possible age-bias charges because the statute allows her department to reexamine any driver suspected of impairment.
Three years ago, Beecher also instituted a "red card" system under which law enforcement officials, family members or medical providers can contact her department with concerns about any driver. The driver in question is then summoned for a hearing that can lead to retesting or, in some cases, automatic license suspension. Multiple complaints virtually guarantee that a driver will lose his or her license, Beecher said.
"Three strikes and you're out," she said, adding that her department has examined about 1,400 red card drivers since the program began.
But Beecher -- who quipped that DMV, from the Department of Motor Vehicles, also stood for "Don't Mess with Virginia" -- is pushing for even stronger rules for older drivers. She wants to introduce "degraduated" licensing, modeled after the program in Illinois, which reduces the number of years a license is granted to an older motorist. She also wants to promote transportation alternatives for the elderly.
"Driving is not a right, it is a privilege," she said. "And just like we were all overzealous to get our licenses at age 16, there comes a time when you are a detriment on the highway, and you have to give it up."
But Jason King, public affairs director for the American Assn. of Motor Vehicles Administrators, said the question of when a person should stop driving is clouded by a lack of data.
He noted that a pilot study examining the reaction times, motor skills and memories of 5,000 Maryland drivers age 70 and older is entering its sixth year. But no results have been released.
"Is there a certain age when people should be called in for testing, or told they have to stop driving?" King asked. "We don't know. We ... are all aging at different rates."
In April, King's trade organization began testing a Web site, www.granddriver.info, to educate the public about issues pertaining to older drivers. The site includes a section called "When You Care Enough" that walks family members through the sensitive subject of convincing elderly relatives it is time to stop driving.