A new future for elderly motorists across the nation -- including millions who might otherwise have to give up driving -- could take shape over the next two years because of a Maryland project that is the most comprehensive study ever of older drivers.
The study, which is being watched nationally, has two objectives: to develop sophisticated driving tests that can spot people at risk for accidents early on and to identify ways to help seniors remain safely behind the wheel as long as possible.
The number of older drivers involved in fatal traffic accidents increased by 33 percent between 1988 and 1998, according to a report released last month by the Road Information Program in Washington.
It may get worse, many experts fear. In 10 years, the first baby boomers will turn 65. That generation of senior citizens will eventually make up 25 percent of all drivers. Though states can ill afford millions of unsafe drivers, they are not eager to strip them of their mobility and independence.
"The reality is we're looking down the barrel," said Essie Wagner, a research psychologist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is funding the $750,000 Maryland project.
"Baby boomers have changed the face of every age group they've reached, and I have no reason to think it will be any different with this. We're not going to be able to pull the licenses out of their hands," Wagner said.
The options available last year to Shirley Goldstein of Pikesville illustrate how many seniors might be helped.
Goldstein lost her right to drive last fall in the way many elderly motorists do. An illness left the energetic 80-year-old confused and easily distracted. Her doctor concluded that she was in no shape to get behind the wheel of her Oldsmobile.
But for Goldstein, a widow who is proud of her self-reliance, it was not the end of driving.
After taking a special test and getting help from an occupational therapist, Goldstein got her license back last week with the blessing of the Motor Vehicle Administration.
That kind of help, which may become widely available, could benefit millions more.
"I'm used to being independent, and it's very important for me to come and go as I see fit," Goldstein said. Friday, she drove to Nordstrom on one of her first errands: buying a dress for a black-tie event. "I said I can drive, and I'm going to drive."
Occupational therapy is just one way of helping seniors continue to drive, said Dr. Robert Raleigh, chief of the MVA medical advisory board and the leader of the Maryland project.
The project -- by a consortium of more than 20 state agencies, including the State Highway Administration, the Office on Aging and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene -- is aimed at developing a model program that could be duplicated around the country.
One phase, which began a year ago, involves a battery of tests measuring vision, alertness, memory and reflexes of more than 2,000 older drivers in Maryland. Researchers plan to monitor these volunteers' driving records for two years and learn whether the tests can predict problem drivers.
"When older people have been asked what they think of this kind of test, a large number are receptive," Raleigh said. "If you're willing to be screened for cancer or heart disease, why not be screened for this?
"What we're trying to ultimately develop is a driving test that's valid, like a mammogram."
Last week, while renewing her license at the Glen Burnie MVA office, 68-year-old Laura Williams became one of the volunteers.
The last time she took a behind-the-wheel driving test was 50 years ago.
A retired Baltimore city employee, she drives every day. Although her skills remain sharp and she hasn't had an accident in years, she limits her long-distance and night driving.
"I think after anyone drives 10 or 20 years, they really should be tested again," she said. "I've known people in my age group whose reflexes are not as good as they used to be. A lot of people slow up. We get arthritis and a little bit of everything."
At the MVA, she was clocked while walking a straight line, connecting a series of numbers and letters on paper, and responding to fast-moving highway traffic depicted on a computer screen. She thinks testing should go further.
"Some of us have problems with hearing, and there was no test for that," she said.
Separate testing for seniors is a controversial idea, partly because there has been little research on which to base standards, but also because seniors -- a powerful voting bloc -- frown on it.
About half of states have special requirements for older drivers, most involving more frequent license renewals.
Only a few go further, requiring a medical exam or road tests past a certain age. In Maryland, where 284,000 licensed drivers are older than 70, seniors face no separate testing standard.
The American Association of Retired Persons endorses improved driver testing if it applies to everyone.
"There is growing interest in making sure that the question of safety in older drivers is addressed," said Audrey Straight, senior policy analyst for AARP. "But what everyone wants is the roads to be safe for everyone."
Older drivers are involved in 6 percent of all crashes, with teen-agers responsible for a disproportionate share of problems on the road, she said. "This is not an epidemic situation that needs a draconian solution."
Beyond the question of testing, the Maryland project is concentrating on ways to simplify driving for aging motorists and help them keep their licenses. Highway planners, for instance, are studying improvements to signs and pavement markings.
"In general, we know that if the letter sizes are larger and there is better lighting around the signs, it's beneficial," said Kathy Lusby-Treber, chief of safety programs for the highway administration.
"If clutter is reduced on the roadway, it helps. Lots of signs can be distracting."
Campaigns to better educate the public about refresher driving classes for seniors -- offered by groups such as AAA and AARP -- also figure into the Maryland plan.
Doctors will be among those targeted with more information about equipment and therapy that can allow stroke victims and amputees to continue driving. Physicians, often unaware of such options, often rule out driving for such patients unnecessarily.
For example, Dorothy Kopicky thought that she had no choice but to give up driving a year ago when a neurological problem caused numbness in her legs so severe that she could no longer feel the gas or brake pedals.
Occupational therapy and special equipment for her car would have allowed the 77-year-old Parkville widow to continue driving.
Instead, she relied on rides from friends and relatives until she learned about a program at Good Samaritan Hospital that taught her how to use hand controls in place of the accelerator and brake.
In February, with her car adapted, she resumed driving.
"It was worth every bit of training and time," she said. "Even when people are willing to take you everywhere and do everything for you, it's not the same as picking up the keys and just going to the grocery and the doctor. I think there are a lot of people who are not aware of these programs at all. If they just knew about it, they could do it."
Better transit services
Researchers are looking into better options for those who can no longer drive. The Mass Transit Administration is studying expanded bus and van services for seniors, as well as better information about its services, said Ruth Silverstone, the MTA's director of interagency programs.
"Instead of a negative, confrontational situation taking away a person's license, people would get transportation assistance," she said.
Pub Date: 10/17/99