- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The American Medical Association will issue a report today that calls upon doctors to help older motorists drive more safely.

A preview of the report states that physicians are key to helping older drivers because they can test motor skills and regulate medications, “yet a lack of well-defined medical and legal guidelines may pose a barrier to fulfilling the role.”

Area doctors have mixed reactions to the report.

“I have not seen the report, but my concern would be that it should address individuals and not be too general,” said Dr. Calvin Fields, director of the Institute of Gerontology at the University of the District of Columbia.

Dr. George Taler, director of long-term care at the Washington Hospital Center, said the guidelines are sensible but will have little effect on local doctors because most are specialists. He also said the guidelines should focus on individual cases, not a specific age.

The connection between aging motorists and deteriorating driving skills attracted nationwide attention after a July 17 accident in which an 86-year-old man killed 10 persons and injured more than 50 when he lost control of his car on a crowded Santa Monica, Calif., street.

A similar incident happened Friday in Florida, where a 79-year-old man in a station wagon ran into a roadside market, injuring three persons.

Federal studies and those from insurance companies show that drivers older than 70 account for 13 percent of all traffic fatalities. The studies also show that elderly motorists are about five times more likely to die from injuries from which younger drivers usually recover.

The report asks doctors to help the elderly stay healthy so they can survive crashes and recover from injuries. It also calls for continuing doctor education, which could include advice on gentle and appropriate ways to ask patients to give up their car keys.

Several Maryland groups already are addressing the problem.

Johns Hopkins Hospital last year started a program to evaluate and help drivers who had suffered strokes or other major setbacks.

The program, and the new AMA report, recommend that older motorists limit driving at night and during rush hours.

“It is hard to be in this society if you cannot drive,” said Annette Lavezza, an occupational therapist with the Johns Hopkins program.

The therapists see an average of nine patients a week with most in their mid- to late 70s. Many are referred by a physician, family member or the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA), and fewcome on their own, Mrs. Lavezza said.

The program includes a two-hour examination in which vision, reaction time and other basic driving abilities are tested, and most patients also take a driving test.

Mrs. Lavezza says problems often can be corrected by changing bad habits, but other times the program recommends that the MVA restrict or revoke a license.

Maryland issues licenses to drivers 70 and older only if they have a satisfactory driving record or a doctor’s letter attesting to their sound physical and mental health.

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles has no law on elderly drivers, but the District requires drivers older than 70 to submit a doctor’s letter verifying that their vision and reflexes are adequate.

The federal government has approved a $1.6 million to start a National Older Drivers Research Center at the University of Florida.

The complete AMA guidelines are available online at www.ama-assn.org/go/olderdrivers.

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