Studies of elderly drivers are rising; Recent accidents elevate discussions over safety, rights


Around the country, states are taking actions that could help prevent accidents such as the fatal crash Saturday police said was caused by an 83-year-old motorist driving the wrong way on the Jones Falls Expressway:

In Maryland, a new study might help identify older motorists with fading skills.

Pennsylvania has begun entering the names of drivers over 50 in a lottery, and those selected are called in for retesting.

Next month, state agencies in Wisconsin will gather to figure out how they might overlap to tackle the problem of aging and dangerous drivers.

"Taking a license away from an older person is a very traumatic event, and people are reluctant to do it," said Essie Wagner, a research psychologist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "What these states are doing is taking a positive approach -- they're not just saying we need to get people off the road."

Headlines and statistics are helping push the issue.

Two weeks ago, a 72-year-old drove the wrong way into highway traffic north of Omaha, Neb., killing two people in a head-on accident.

In March, a 10-year-old boy died and six other children were hurt when an 84-year-old woman unexpectedly put her minivan in reverse, striking them as they stood outside a middle school in North Carolina.

Fatal traffic accidents involving older drivers rose 33 percent between 1988 and 1998, according to the Road Information Program in Washington.

A bigger problem will soon be upon states: Baby boomers begin to turn 65 in 10 years and that age group will eventually make up 25 percent of all drivers.

But special testing for the elderly remains a matter of debate. It is widely considered to be unfair, and no state requires it.

It also is unclear whether testing would make any difference in an accident such as the one in Baltimore on Saturday, when, Richard Gambrill is accused of pulling his 1991 Ford Taurus north into the southbound lanes of the JFX, hitting several vehicles and killing two young women. No one knows what caused the error, whether it was vision problems, confusion or the sort of simple misjudgment a 40-year-old could make.

Gambrill, of Phoenix, Baltimore County, remained in critical but stable condition yesterday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, unable to be questioned by police. He has not been charged.

"There is no age at which someone is too old to drive," said Dr. Robert Raleigh, chief of the Motor Vehicle Administration medical advisory board.

Raleigh is heading the nation's most comprehensive study of older drivers, which is under way in Maryland. The survey of more than 2,000 older motorists measures vision, alertness, memory and reflexes. During the next two years, the state will monitor their driving records to learn whether the tests can help predict driving problems.

When completed in 2002, it might shed light on how to ensure two objectives: safer roads for motorists and fair treatment for older drivers. And it could provide early warning of a problem that can be corrected to help older drivers stay on the road.

Raleigh advocates regular screenings after a certain age -- no different from having an exam for heart disease or cancer once a person reaches a higher-risk phase of life, he says. The federally funded study he is conducting will help pinpoint what age that might be for older drivers.

"It's so important right now for us to be doing everything we can in our research so when the big push comes in 10 or 20 years, we can handle it without having a crisis," Raleigh said. Once done, the battery of tests will also be available to motor vehicle bureaus.

Maryland is among 35 states with medical review boards that can revoke a license if the driver is considered unsafe. The state has 500,000 licensed drivers over age 65, and the review board hears about 2,500 older driver cases a year.

Raleigh said the tests also are likely to help doctors who suspect their patients are a risk behind the wheel.

In December, an ethics committee of the American Medical Association concluded that physicians have a responsibility to notify licensing boards if they question a patient's ability to drive safely. Prior to that, doctors had debated whether such notification violated doctor-patient confidentiality.

"Physicians and health care providers are going to have to start taking a more active role," Raleigh said. "We're not trying to take licenses away, we're trying to keep people's driving health up to speed."

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