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DMV tests a tough new test

In some offices, drivers get a revised vision exam as well as memory and reflex assessments. The agency says it isn't targeting seniors alone.

September 30, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- California drivers could face more intensive vision, memory and reflex tests when they renew licenses if a Department of Motor Vehicles pilot project proves successful in better identifying those who are too impaired to be on the road.

The tests are part of a new effort to determine the skills of drivers that also includes equipping DMV offices with machines that measure response times and offering some drivers a license that restricts them to operating vehicles in their neighborhoods or during certain hours of the day.

Although it could be years before the proposed program takes effect, it could stir controversy much sooner because of its potential impact on aging baby boomers.

The agency expects to reach preliminary conclusions by 2010 and report to state lawmakers the following year, said DMV spokesman Michael Marando. So the earliest that all California drivers could face any of the new tests would be 2012, and then only with the Legislature's approval.

Officials stressed that the tests are not targeting senior drivers. But with the expected rise in the state's elderly population, officials say there is a need to identify drivers with worsening vision and reflexes that may impair their driving ability. They are problems that occur most often with older drivers, but can occur among young and middle-aged people.

There have been several high-profile cases of senior drivers losing control of their cars and causing major accidents, most notably the case in 2003 in which an 86-year-old driver crashed through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, killing 10 people.

"What we can do is try to identify drivers who probably can't drive safely," said David Hennessy, a research program specialist who recently retired from the DMV. "This is something we're especially sensitive to because of the aging of the baby boomers. We're looking to accommodate and acknowledge that fact."

Over the last few months, DMV officials in six Northern California field offices carried out a trial run of the new tests, which were given to English-speaking drivers who were unable to renew their licenses by mail. The motorists were those who came in for an eye exam and written test to renew their license, either because they did not have a clean driving record or because they were 70 or older.

Although the tests were mandatory for those drivers, the DMV did not release the results, including whether any licenses were revoked.

The first test checks for obvious physical limitations, such as being unable to walk to the counter unaided.

Another exam is a new eye test in which the chart's letters fade from black to a very light gray on a white background.

Being unable to read the faintly gray letters could show that a driver might not easily see a white truck in the fog or a dark car parked in the shade, Hennessy said.

Cataracts or glaucoma can lead to reduced "contrast sensitivity," and drivers with the problem might be advised to seek an eye exam and avoid driving during night, dusk, dawn, and in the rain and fog, he said.

A third test requires motorists to write down their Social Security numbers by memory, or their ZIP Code, if they don't have the former.

"Failure to recall your Social Security number suggests maybe that they may have some kind of cognitive problem," Hennessy said.

A failure of any of these tests could result in another exam to check reflexes.

Motorists are asked to sit in front of a touch-screen computer, and a silhouette of either a car or truck flashes on the screen for less than half a second. The driver is then asked to press a button on the computer screen asking if a car or a truck was seen.

The test repeats, with the silhouette of the car or truck flashing for shorter durations.

"It's a measure of how fast a person can process visual information," Hennessy said. "It determines how fast and accurately someone can realize a hazardous event."

Failing that test results in watching a video that suggests avoiding freeway driving, especially during rush hour, or making left turns on busy roads.

And drivers could be required to take the road test. Licenses can only be revoked if a driver fails the road test.

As a last resort before revoking a license, DMV officials say they may offer motorists the chance to test their driving skills in their neighborhoods, and if they pass, receive a license restricting them to that area. They could be subject to other restrictions, as well, such as being barred from driving at night, dawn or dusk.

California lawmakers' concerns about improving the assessment of aging drivers grew out of the Santa Monica crash.

Lynn Daucher, a former Orange County assemblywoman who is now director of the state Department of Aging, said she was concerned that legislative efforts would presume that elderly drivers are bad drivers.

But she said the DMV's test appeared to be fair because it applies to all age groups.

"It's terrible to lose your license. We live in California and people drive a lot," she said.

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