Driving blind

Forget road rage—it's road age that will kill us all.

ON SEPTEMBER 21 AND 22, the Greenwood Senior Center hosted a driver refresher course, sponsored by the AARP, attended by a number of elderly drivers hoping to earn lower auto-insurance rates. The class was shown a video demonstrating vision conditions that many people develop as they age. One of them, macular degeneration—a condition in which the sufferer has decent peripheral vision but cannot see objects straight ahead—looked particularly frightening. "If you have that condition, do not drive," intoned the video's narrator.

While Arlene Cooper (her name and her husband's have been changed at her request) was sitting in the class, her husband George, driving north on Aurora Avenue, hit a parked truck, and his car lost a front fender. Cooper, a retired mechanic, says he renewed his driver's license last December. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with macular degeneration. "I can't read the newspaper for sour apples," he says.

There are a lot of George Coopers out there. They have macular degeneration, cataracts, Alzheimer's, cardiovascular problems, or any among dozens of age-related conditions that can make us dangerous drivers. Although drivers over 65 spend much less time on the road than do other drivers, they have more traffic collisions per miles driven than any other group save for 15- to 24-year-olds. Drivers over 85 have nine times the fatal-accident rate of the average driver.

The obvious solution—cancellation of driver's licenses—has yet to be tried in Washington, where licenses are rarely taken away. Out of 803,000 licenses up for renewal in 1997, only 77 were canceled. Other than requiring the reading of an eye chart (which does not catch common age-related vision afflictions), there are no tests required for renewing a license in Washington state. The state's Department of Licensing does not routinely review people's driving records, nor does it usually receive medical reports from doctors without the patient's permission. "I would like to be able to report [vision impairment]," says Dr. Mark Balter, an optometrist in Ballard who sees many elderly patients. "I'd hate to have one of my patients kill somebody."

The state, on the other hand, is loath to get drivers off the road. "The last thing we want to do," says the DOL's Derek Goudriaan, "is take away somebody's mobility or independence." In a small percentage of cases, the DOL will issue a restricted license, allowing someone with a serious medical condition to drive within a proscribed area (to the store, to church, and to the doctor's office, for example). Depending on the driver's physical condition, the DOL may restrict him or her from driving at night and/

or on major roadways.

The license review system affords vision-impaired drivers ample opportunity to evade detection. Macular degenerate George Cooper, for example, "may have falsified his eye exam," speculates Goudriaan, who says examiners sometimes catch people listening carefully to the person ahead of them in line. "If they know the correct letters because they've heard them, they will pass the vision screening."

Issuing an impaired driver a restricted license, to judge from one study, does little good. The Washington Traffic Safety Board revealed that nearly 70 of 449 people issued a restricted license in 1994 should either have been tested further or had their licenses canceled. "They had about four times as many collisions as a control group of randomly selected drivers," says Phil Salzburg of the WTSB, who conducted the study.

There are also significant political obstacles to better management of the aged. During the last legislative session, Rep. Duane Sommers (R-Spokane), responding to a spate of fatal accidents involving elderly drivers, proposed a bill that would have tightened the license-renewal process for drivers 69 or older. His proposal was greeted with a storm of opposition from AAA and the AARP, who called it age discrimination, and the bill died. "Testing should be ability-based," said AARP spokesperson Deborah Moore. "Some people at 85 are incredibly vibrant."

This year, Washington's Department of Licensing plans to ask the state Legislature for additional staff, and proposes to expand the license period to six years rather than four. "Then we could deal with our customers on a more thorough basis rather than the cursory screening we're doing now," says Goudriaan.

One thing is for sure—no matter how severe their vision problems, drivers will not voluntarily surrender their licenses. Take, for example, George Cooper, anxious to get back on the road after his accident. "I know pretty well my capabilities," he says. "If it comes to the point I'm not safe on the road, I'll quit."

 
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