- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

A day after an elderly man killed 10 pedestrians by apparently losing control of his car on a crowded Santa Monica street, California lawmakers said yesterday they would consider legislation to keep unsafe older drivers from getting behind the wheel.

Police have yet to conclude the cause of the accident, which also injured more than 50 people, but already law enforcement personnel, politicians and pundits are saying the law needs to allow for more scrutiny of elderly drivers like 86-year-old George Weller, who was behind the wheel in Wednesday’s crash.

“Everyone over the age of 70 is a ticking time bomb behind a guided missile,” said Brian Wilson, a radio talk show host for San Francisco’s KSFO.

Mr. Wilson said the callers to his show younger than 65 supported more scrutiny of the elderly, while those older did not.

Mr. Weller, a Santa Monica resident, told police he mistakenly stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake pedal when he made a wrong turn onto the street of a farmers market. Police are considering filing charges against him.

A spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles said Mr. Weller last renewed his driver’s license in November 2000, passing a visual and written test in a DMV office. Mr. Weller was not asked to perform a driving test, which, by state law, can be required only of drivers who exhibit an inability to drive safely, the spokesman said.

Seventeen states require “in person” license renewals for older drivers, typically every four or five years. In the District, a doctor must attest to an elderly driver’s physical and mental capability, and a reaction test may be required. Maryland has no special restrictions, but the law precludes age from being a basis for re-examination. Virginia has no special tests for older drivers.

California Highway Patrol Commissioner Spike Helmick said at a press conference yesterday that he would recommend the state’s law be re-examined to ensure aging drivers can maneuver roadways safely.

Drivers who are 85 and older have a fatality rate nine times as high as 25- to 69-year-olds, when calculated based on miles traveled, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. At nearly 10 deaths per 100 million miles, it is higher than any other age group.

With the baby boom generation nearing retirement, the number of elderly drivers is expected to increase dramatically, creating a public health problem, analysts say. Dr. Robert Raleigh, director of the Maryland Medical Board, who also heads a federally funded research program on elderly drivers, said they now comprise one in eight drivers. He said that by 2025, one in five drivers will be elderly. The fastest-growing group of elderly drivers is those 85 and older.

“Our society doesn’t really start to think about the day they may have to stop driving,” Dr. Raleigh said.

By 2020, California is expected to have the largest population older than 65 of any state. California requires drivers older than 70 to renew their licenses in person in a DMV office every five years. Those younger than 70 are required to enter the DMV once every 15 years. They may be required to take a driving test only at the request of a family member, a doctor, a police officer or the DMV.

“Those provisions were not strong enough to prevent this disaster from happening,” former state Sen. Tom Hayden said in a statement from Los Angeles. He authored a bill two years ago that would have required periodic behind-the-wheel testing for drivers 75 and older.

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