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Putting on the Brakes
At 75 and Older, D.C. Drivers Must Pass 4 Tests to Have License Reissued

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Clarence Fogelstrom has been driving nearly 50 years, but he was nervous this month when he took the road test now required of District drivers 75 and older.

"I flunked it," said Fogelstrom, 78, a retired federal government employee who suffers tremors in his left hand. He said he never found out exactly what he did wrong.

So Fogelstrom, who gets around in a 1994 Saturn, went back to the crowded D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles facility in Brentwood on Friday for a second try. This time, he passed and received his reissued driver's license.

"I've had some medical problems, so I don't know how long I'll be able to drive," said Fogelstrom, a Capitol Hill resident. "I'm hoping it's going to be good."

In May 2005, the DMV started enforcing a little-known 34-year-old law that states drivers 75 or older may be required to take special tests. About 13,000 older drivers in the District must pass computerized written and road tests every five years when their licenses come up for renewal -- and that's on top of the vision and medical tests required after their 70th birthday to prove they can still drive safely.

These requirements are the strictest laws governing the mandatory testing of senior drivers in the area and among the strictest in the country. New Hampshire and Illinois also require road tests for older drivers.

Some drivers complained that the law unfairly targets older people, who count themselves among the most cautious motorists.

"Four tests for people who have driven all their life is not really justified," said George Modelski, 81, of Northwest Washington, who renewed his license a few weeks ago. "It's regulatory overkill."

But Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said AAA surveys show there is overwhelming support for some kind of testing for seniors, and statistics support the need. The eyes of a 50-year-old take 10 times longer to adjust to a change in light than those of a 20-year-old, he said.

"We all know we lose that flexibility," Anderson said. "Our peripheral vision isn't as good, and the ability to turn our necks is more limited to see traffic from all directions."

In Virginia, drivers 80 and older have been required since 2004 to take a vision test and appear in person at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew their licenses. In Maryland, the law requires only a vision test, which can be taken at the Motor Vehicle Administration office or signed by a doctor and brought to the MVA.

Any jurisdiction can require additional tests of drivers whose skills have been questioned by law enforcement officials, physicians, family members or others.

Fritz Mulhauser, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, said the courts would not be likely to see a constitutional problem with asking older drivers to take special tests to prove they're still able to drive. He said it's a fact that as people age, they lose vision, reflexes and strength.

The District's goal is to send out renewal notices six months before a driver's 75th birthday to give the person ample time to schedule the tests, said DMV spokeswoman Janis Hazel.

Only the examiner is allowed in the car with the driver, and he or she observes how the driver handles the vehicle in traffic and whether traffic signals and posted signs are obeyed. Drivers must come with vehicles that have a center, hand-controlled emergency brake that the examiner could use, if necessary.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that 28 million -- or 15 percent -- of the nation's licensed drivers were 65 or older in 2004. By 2030, that age bracket is expected to account for 25 percent of U.S. drivers.

AAA and AARP offer tools to aid aging drivers in assessing and sharpening their skills.

The automobile association has a computerized self-assessment test that seniors can take at home to help them determine whether it is time to give up their license. AARP offers a driver safety program, formerly called 55 Alive, online and at local sites.

Statistics reported from a AAA study last week found that seniors in crashes are at a higher risk of dying than teenagers. But the reason is not that older drivers are more dangerous: They are at a higher risk of succumbing to their injuries than young people.

"An 82-year-old woman is more likely to be killed in a car crash than a 16-year-old male," said Anderson of AAA. "That's a startling statistic because an 82-year-old woman is probably a cautious driver."

The Insurance Information Institute reported recently that, when compared with other age groups, older drivers have low crash rates per capita. A recent AARP Bulletin likewise noted that older drivers generally have fewer accidents per driver than the national average, but they have more accidents per mile of driving.

AARP cited experts who said the driving ability of seniors is affected by several things, including early stages of Alzheimer's, dementia, eye disease, arthritis and the side effects of some medicines.

Many seniors said they limit their driving to nearby places, such as the grocery store, church and doctor appointments. Some also said that if they didn't drive, they would lose their independence and be trapped in their homes.

"The issue of what to do about reissuing licenses is emotional," said Elinor Ginzler, a spokeswoman for AARP, who called for better screening and mandatory retesting for all drivers, regardless of age. "It's about ability. A birth date doesn't make you an unsafe driver."

Dorcas Glascoe, who will turn 80 in April, said she and her friends have talked about the changes.

"I'm not opposed," said Glascoe, who lives in Northeast Washington. "But I want them to take it a step farther and help the seniors. In keeping with the law, the DMV should be giving refresher courses to everyone that is covered."

Glascoe said she cringes whenever she hears of older drivers having tragic accidents after their foot hit the accelerator instead of the brake. Glascoe, who drives a 2006 Honda Accord, knows that such an image sends the erroneous message in the media that older drivers are dangerous.

"The incidence of those occurrences are so low," she said. "It's a newsworthy item, but it should not be a brand on the total senior population."

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