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Market Crash Turns Focus to Driver Tests

Deaths led to scrutiny of laws governing older motorists. A DMV pilot plan will use a battery of exams to identify risky drivers of any age.

October 02, 2006|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

An elderly driver in Santa Monica became confused and, not realizing that he was putting lives in danger, plowed through a pedestrian walkway. The fatal incident led to calls for tighter licensing of senior motorists. Opposed by the powerful seniors' lobby in Sacramento, the proposal failed.

That was nearly five years before 86-year old George Russell Weller drove through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, killing 10 people and injuring more than 60. Another round of urgent calls for reform went out, and the Department of Motor Vehicles continues to study the matter.

The two tragedies show how hard it has been for state licensing authorities to come to grips with a dilemma most aging residents eventually have to face: whether and when to turn in the car keys.

"It's a matter of life or death. Your parents told you when you were kids that a car is a deadly weapon," said Jason King, spokesman for a national association of DMV officials. "In the hands of someone impaired, it can become an incredibly deadly weapon."

Advocates for seniors, such as the AARP, have opposed any legislation that would require special driver testing based on age. States have hugely diverse practices, from Illinois, which requires mandatory road tests for drivers older than 75, to Tennessee, which has no age threshold for road testing.

In California, drivers older than 70 must renew their licenses in person but are not required to take road tests -- a rule that Weller alluded to in saying, after the market tragedy, that he had "lucked out" by not having to demonstrate his driving skills at his latest renewal.

Weller, 89, now on trial for manslaughter in the July 2003 tragedy, contends he made a terrible mistake that does not justify criminal punishment. Prosecutors suggest he was fleeing an accident.

The death of Brandi Joy Mitock, 15, run down by 96-year-old driver Bryan Cox in the November 1998 Santa Monica case, inspired her father to push for mandatory road testing for drivers 75 and older in California.

"It's an absolute tragedy that eight years have almost gone by and people are still turning a blind eye to people like Weller," Mark Mitock said.

The DMV, which revoked Weller's license after the farmers market crash, has revamped its road test and revised and improved its written and vision test in recent years, said John McClellan, head of licensing. But there are too many uncertainties about the effect of mandatory road testing on older drivers to target them in particular, he said.

"We would like to do something immediately," McClellan said. "It became very clear to us that we don't know the effect of this. We could end up, if we did it wrong, licensing the worst drivers."

The agency has spent years developing a new battery of tests to identify risky drivers, regardless of age. Three levels of scrutiny are involved, from simple mental tests to written and computer recognition tests, all leading to a road test, if necessary.

All Central California drivers, regardless of age, will take the new tests under a pilot program beginning in January.

In preliminary testing of perceptual ability, most seniors did as well as other drivers, meaning that there was no "inevitable gradual decline in ability relating to age," said Dave DeYoung, chief of research for the agency. The trick is developing tests that identify those who need to take a road test without basing the requirement purely on age, McClellan and DeYoung said.

States should regulate older drivers for "maximum public safety with maximum mobility for individuals," said Brian McLaughlin, a top official for traffic injury control for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Last year, drivers 65 and older, who are 12% of the population, were involved in 7% of injury accidents nationwide. The numbers are mirrored in California.

"Seniors do not pose any greater risk than other drivers," McLaughlin said.

The Weller case "drew attention to the issue," said Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher (R-Brea), who sponsored legislation signed last month mandating the DMV pilot program.

"Legislators have been very careful to say the test won't be age-based," Daucher said. "You can have a Weller at any age."

State and federal agencies concluded that Weller confused the gas pedal for the brake, pumped it repeatedly and did not realize his mistake until it was too late.

Safety statistics show that people age 60 to 70 are six times more likely to be involved in out-of-control speeding than other drivers.

Most officials interviewed cited Southern California's unique car culture and extreme reliance on autos as reasons to go slowly on mandatory road testing.

"Driving is a big form of independence," said Karen Roper, executive director of the Orange County Office on Aging. "If you have to put down your keys, it should not mean you're giving up your independence and ability to make decisions."

In California, the DMV can intervene and check out drivers if asked by law enforcement, physicians or relatives, officials said.

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