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Bill would restrict 'problem drivers'


WASHINGTON -- Lorelia Smith is 70 and spends a lot of time in her car -- driving to church, club meetings and the grocery store.

She is not intimidated by this city's traffic, but suddenly she feels threatened by something else.

If the proposed High Risk Driver's Act of 1993 becomes law, Ms. Smith fears she and other drivers over 65 will lose their freedom to drive.

The bill, which focuses on teens, elderly and so-called "problem drivers" -- those with a history of causing accidents -- would restrict the driving privileges of senior citizens who do not meet tighter licensing requirements. It would also impose stricter penalties on drunken drivers and speeders under age 21.

"This is the logical next step in safety," says Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., author of the bill that is being championed by such groups as the American Association of Retired Persons, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the insurance industry.

Mr. Danforth, whose bill is supported by a small bipartisan group of lawmakers, says its passage is important to prove that high-risk drivers will not be tolerated.

For drivers over 65, the bill would require additional testing to determine their driving abilities. It would restrict the driving privileges of those who fail to meet standards for such things as nighttime driving.

For drivers under 21, the bill proposes lowering the legal blood alcohol content level from 0.10, the current legal level for all drivers, to 0.02. It provides for a six-month license suspension for drivers in this age group who are convicted of possessing alcohol.

It also proposes giving drivers under 18 a provisional license and requiring them to maintain a clean driving record for one year before receiving a standard license.

"Youthful and older drivers and repeat offenders are really problems we have had in highway safety for a long period of time," says Judith Stone, president of the Washington-based Advocates for Highway Safety. "The legislation is trying to take action. It is the first step toward trying to look at the issue as a package."

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which backs the bill, drivers 75 and older account for 11.5 fatal car crashes per 100 million miles driven, compared with two fatal crashes per 100 million miles for drivers aged 35 to 59.

The statistics also show that although drivers aged 16 to 20 represent only 7.4 percent of the nation's licensed drivers, they are involved in 15.4 percent of all fatal accidents. Alcohol is involved in 31 percent of fatalities involving young drivers, the institute found.

As for Lorelia Smith, she approves of tighter licensing, but does not believe restrictions should be based on age.

"As long as a person is capable of driving, able to hear and has no defects, then they should be able to drive," she says. "They can make legislation stricter without hampering my driving."

Ms. Smith says that in all her years of driving she has never been the cause of an accident.

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