A yearlong study by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles is recommending a closer examination of the fitness of elderly motorists and the granting of legal immunity to people who provide information to the state about those who might not be fit to drive.
The study tackles head-on a sensitive issue for many families: how to decide whether a loved one is able to drive a car safely.
The debate also involves the balance between individual liberty and public safety.
The chairmen of the Virginia House and Senate transportation committees called on the DMV in January to establish a stakeholders group to study "whether the Commonwealth should adopt additional objective criteria in current license renewal requirements as a means of assessing mature drivers' continued capability to remain active, safe, independent, and mobile on the road as they age."
In response, the "licensing committee" of the group is recommending that Virginia lower the age for mandatory in-person license renewal from 80 to 75 and shorten the license renewal period from eight years to five years for drivers 75 and older.
According to the Virginia Department of Taxation, the DMV would lose $818,285 in annual revenue from fiscal 2017 through fiscal 2021 as a result of reduced fees for five-year licenses ($20) compared with eight-year licenses ($32). Increased costs to serve additional customer visits are estimated to be $203,866 annually.
Some applauded the study's findings. David Morrell and Bryan Morrell became involved in the issue after their relative, Darren Morrell, was killed Nov, 8, 2011, when an older driver pulled out of a small commercial area and made a left turn without yielding.
"This is certainly a national phenomenon, not just a local issue, and additional effort needs to be made to understand the effects of the aging process on the ability to drive safely and how the aging process is different for each individual," the Morrells wrote to DMV Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb.
David M. DeBiasi with AARP Virginia said that the group appreciates the DMV's work but believes the recommendations should not be based on age.
He wrote to Mr. Holcomb saying issues like testing functional impairment and granting licenses tailored to specific individuals based on test results are not specific to age.
"We are not in favor of the age-based model since the real issue is health, not age," he wrote.
Mr. DeBiasi said the AARP supports in-person renewal of licenses at regular intervals for all drivers. "Rather than making an 'age' the trigger for infrequent renewals, one approach might be to have an individual's driving record and medical situation be the trigger," he said.
In addition to the recommendations for older drivers, the study proposes changes to Virginia code that would give greater protections to members of the public who provide information about drivers that could lead to the suspension or revocation of their licenses.
Right now, drivers can request information about who supplies information to the DMV about their fitness to operate a vehicle, unless it's a relative or medical professional involved in the driver's treatment.
However, draft legislation accompanying the report would protect the source of information supplied to the department, no matter who it comes from, as long as the information is provided "in good faith."
"Persons who have supplied information to the Department in good faith regarding a driver's fitness to drive shall be immune from any civil or criminal liability in connection with providing such information, unless it is proven that such person acted in bad faith or with malicious intent," the draft legislation says.
The group also recommends "continuing to monitor and collect data on drivers age 85 and older and their incidents of crashes, improper actions and convictions to determine whether the license renewal period should be further shortened."
The study shows fewer crashes per licensed older driver but an increasing rate of older drivers being at fault when crashes do occur. Figures also indicate that when older drivers are involved in crashes, they are more likely to suffer injuries or fatalities compared with drivers in other age ranges.
The driver licensing committee also recommends amending state code to give judges the option of requiring drivers to attend "mature driver motor vehicle crash prevention courses where applicable based on the offenses committed."
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