- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The way Dorothy Wulfers sees it, only two minds are qualified to decide when it is time to give up the keys to her Buick LeSabre — hers and God’s.

Mrs. Wulfers, 87, learned to drive a Model T Ford at age 15. Seven decades later, driving remains a simple pleasure, whether a morning run to Wal-Mart or a 112-mile trek to Parkersburg for an afternoon tea with the women’s club.

Her skills, she says, are as sharp as ever.

“If there would become a doubt in my mind, then I would give it up,” Mrs. Wulfers says. “But I’m self-assured, I’m confident, and I don’t see why I should.”

Increasingly, though, states are taking a look at motorists like Mrs. Wulfers, concerned that vision, reaction time and other driving skills have diminished. At least 22 states have laws singling out older drivers for special attention, and analysts predict more as America grows grayer.

“It’s one of the emerging issues with the aging of America, keeping people both safe and mobile,” says Bella Dinh-Zarr, national director of traffic safety policy for AAA. “But is legislation really the answer? No, because there’s not enough information.”

From 1990 to 2000, the number of Americans older than 65 jumped 12 percent to more than 35 million. According to the U.S. census, the older population grew in every state.

California, Florida and New York have the highest number of older drivers. Florida, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have the largest percentage of people older than 65 — 17.6 percent, 15.6 percent and 15.3 percent, respectively.

Monitoring and assisting older drivers is an issue for every state, said DaCosta Mason, national coordinator of consumer issues for the AARP. But he says lawmakers often react to high-profile crashes without studying the science and seeking input from seniors.

“Research suggests that older persons are more likely to be involved in a crash,” Mr. Mason said. “The problem is we don’t know at what age deterioration begins.”

Illinois and Rhode Island require road tests for drivers older than 75 who want to renew their licenses, while 15 other states have an accelerated renewal schedule. At least five states have stopped mail-in renewals for older drivers.

The most common tool is vision testing. In Virginia, drivers older than 80 will get them starting July 1.

Mr. Mason says the AARP questions the nature of vision tests and who is conducting them, arguing that physicians are more qualified than counter clerks. Most vision tests fail to measure contrast and peripheral vision, both of which could be factors in an accident.

The AARP thinks all drivers should be tested regularly and fully, but Mr. Mason says most cash-strapped states can’t afford it and single out the older driver.

Mrs. Dinh-Zarr says there are concerns about age-based testing: “What’s the right age? Is this the best use of resources? Who should do the testing?”

Several states, including Nevada, prohibit the practice.

“We’ve not really identified senior drivers as being a problem on the road,” says Tom Jacobs of the Department of Motor Vehicles in Carson City, Nev. “Bad drivers come in all age groups, and there are good drivers out there who are 80 years old.”

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