As reported by the New London Day, July 19, 2006.

Seniors and Driving: It's a Question for the Ages

Should Connecticut's Elderly Be Subjected to More Stringent Testing?

By Katie Warchut

At age 93, Margaret Davis doesn't like to drive much anymore. But she's still perfectly capable of getting in her car and going to the store or to church. She doesn't think there's a magic age when senior citizens should stop driving. “It's the individual,” she said. “I hope I know enough when to quit. I think I will.”

An 85-year-old man who drove into a crowd of pedestrians in New London during the Sailfest event July 8, injuring 28 people, is undergoing a medical review by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, and police are seeking a search warrant to examine his car.

Investigators are not ready to say whether Robert Laine's age was a factor in the accident. But the incident revived questions about how long elderly drivers should be on the road.

For some aging drivers, including Davis, who discussed the issue over lunch Tuesday at the Groton Senior Center, there isn't just one solution.

“I have no problem with being tested in any way,” said Tom Morris, 77, “whether it's reflexes or whatever.”

Al Bradley, 76, volunteers with the Old Mystic Fire Department, where he “ends up picking people up off (Interstate) 95.” He believes the real problem drivers are the young and middle-aged ones who drive aggressively or drink and drive. So, he said, any testing should apply to everyone.

“If it's mandatory for seniors, it should be mandatory for everybody,” Bradley said.

In Connecticut, there are about 216,000 drivers who are 75 or older. The oldest is 106.

Per mile driven, the crash rates for elderly drivers are as high as those for teenagers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Older drivers, however, have fewer accidents per capita, largely because they drive fewer miles, and there are fewer of them on the road.

Though many states require vision screening or more frequent license renewals after a certain age, Connecticut does not.

More than 15 years ago, the General Assembly passed a law requiring vision testing for all ages at every other license renewal, which would be every eight to 12 years. Funding for the new requirement, however, has been pushed back each year, and the law has never been implemented.

State Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, who is 80, said she is considering proposing new legislation to retest drivers over age 85.

“I'm a good driver. I don't know if at 85 I will still be a good driver, but I want to make sure that I am,” Prague said. She added that each year seniors should provide proof to the DMV that they have passed a physical and a vision test in the previous six months, because, she said, “changes happen quickly.”

“All seniors have a responsibility to society to make sure that we're physically able to drive,” she said. “It's not age discrimination, it's a fact of life.”

The way the state now screens drivers is through a referral from some authority. Police can pull a license, a doctor can notify the DMV, or a witness can sign an affidavit that a person has consistently been driving erratically. The DMV then conducts a review, requiring medical forms or further testing, depending on the situation.

Connecticut does have a provision that allows people age 65 and older to renew their licenses for just two years, but it is optional. It was adopted so that seniors, who may be on a fixed income, can pay a reduced rate for their licenses, said DMV spokesman Bill Seymour.

Seymour said DMV statistics show that in 2005, police requested medical reviews on 799 drivers, 85 percent of whom were senior citizens and 75 percent of whom lost their licenses as a result.

The DMV received medical reports from doctors on 177 drivers, 30 to 35 percent of whom lost their license. Of the 150 affidavits the DMV received, 50 percent resulted in a lost license.

Seymour said programs such as vision testing would create an enormous cost for the agency, which now only tests the vision of drivers getting their first Connecticut license.

Such testing “does not necessarily get to the heart of the issue,” he said.

“The DMV views the physician's report as more valuable than a skills test. You could be a good driver, but if you have a medical problem, you're going to have an accident,” he said.

Even when it comes to vision, he said the field of view and night vision are more important than simply reading an eye chart.


Assessing an aging population can be difficult because there is no “normal,” said Dr. Gail Sullivan, associate director for education at the University of Connecticut Center on Aging.

“A 60-year-old could have poor vision and dementia, while an 80-year-old could be fully functional,” she said.

As people get older, they can suffer from disease or from disuse, she said. Function is the main concern for doctors.

When it comes to driving, older people should be concerned with poor mobility, restrictive range of motion, and weakness in lower extremities, Sullivan said. They generally lose skeletal muscle, which facilitates movement. They also lose their ability to process information and have slower reaction times.

In addition to passing physical tests, an older driver who sees a sign up ahead, for example, needs to be able to interpret it quickly.

Cars now can be outfitted to accommodate a range of disabilities, Sullivan said, but if someone has impaired judgment, he may not realize he needs special equipment.

Though doctors are trained to report patients who should not be driving, they may hesitate to do so because it could endanger the doctor-patient relationship, she said.

Seniors who aren't capable of driving endanger others on the road and also themselves because they can't withstand trauma as well as younger people, Sullivan said.

The AARP agrees with using function as a basis to test driving ability.

While the organization does not believe in age discrimination, it does support assessing drivers' functional ability at regular intervals, said Eleanor Ginzler, director for livable communities with the AARP. That means more than just an eye exam, she said.

In a car-dominated society, Ginzler said, the AARP tries to reach out to senior citizens who can no longer drive safely and are reluctant to give up their freedom.

“There's truly a feeling that if I don't drive, I have lost,” she said. “We're focused on the need for people to stay engaged with the world around them. They need transportation options, so they're literally not stranded in their homes.”

The AARP recently launched an online driving test at www.aarp.org/drive/online.