Tuesday, September 05, 2000

'Crash tests' will weed out high-risk drivers

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Drivers can't be steered off the road just because they're old. Age discrimination is against the law. But researchers are developing driver's tests that will target drivers whose visual, cognitive and physical impairments put them at risk of causing crashes.

        These so-called “crash tests” will be ready before baby boomers start turning 65. And if states make it part of their licensing procedure, it will weed out older high-risk drivers.

        “That would take a lot of burden off families if that could be developed,” says Beth Patterson, executive director of Cincinnati Area Senior Services.

        If these functional skills tests had been in place five years ago, Mardee Sherman's job would have been easier. Her 70-year-old father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and his driving became more erratic. He often didn't remember where he was. He refused to stop driving, and her mother felt so guilty about his condition that she allowed him to continue.

        “I pointed out to her that both of them could be sued for a lot of money if he injured someone, not to mention the guilt she would feel if this happened,” says Ms. Sherman of Madison Place. “She took away his keys, but he kept stealing hers and sneaking out. She finally got his doctor to write him a note, on a prescription form, saying that he was not allowed to drive. For some reason, this impressed my dad, and he obeyed the doctor.”

        Researchers are racing against this country's graying demographics. The number of licensed older people will more than double in the next 25 years.

        Baby boomers start reaching age 65 in 2011 and will continue hitting that age until 2030, the peak year when the most older people will be driving. By that year, 20 percent of the population will be over 65 and older.

        Most of the driver evaluation research is being conducted in southern states with large senior citizen populations.

        The University of Alabama has developed a Driving Assessment Clinic in which clients are referred by doctors, families, attorneys or self-referrals. Clinicians look at several factors including: the driver's peripheral vision, useful field of view, how rapidly they process visual information; attention skills and whether they can divide their attention; cognitive skills, including memory, spatial memory and reasoning abilities.

        “Once you know what the risk factors are, you can think of being a bad driver as a health problem because you are putting yourself and others in danger,” says Dr. Cynthia Owsley, professor of ophthalmology in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Alabama. “You then can develop ways to screen for those risk factors so that you can more validly or more scientifically determine those who are at greatest risk for unsafe driving.”

        Based on clinic tests using computerized equipment and on-the-road tests, the assessment clinic prepares a written recommendation on whether the person should refrain from driving or continue.

        “The vast majority of older drivers are perfectly safe drivers,” Dr. Owsley says. “It's just knowing how to fairly identify those who are at risk. Age-based criteria would be unfair.”

        Maryland is piloting a program to determine the validity of using technology-based screening and evaluation tools in a license branch environment.

        “All states are going to have to look at the way they regulate drivers and see if they have the means to screen for impairments that affect driving,” says Alvin Hayes, public affairs director for the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and chairman of The Driver Evaluation Task Force. “Right now, most states do not have that.”

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