To drive or not to drive

morgantown, | The way Dorothy Wulfers sees it, only two minds are qualified to decide when it’s time to give up the keys to her Buick LeSabre: hers and God’s.

Wulfers, 87, learned to drive a Model T Ford at age 15. Seven decades later, driving remains a simple pleasure, whether it’s a morning run to Wal-Mart or a 112-mile trek to Parkersburg for afternoon tea with the women’s club.

Her skills, she says, are as sharp as ever.

“If there would become a doubt in my mind, then I would give it up,’ Wulfers says. “But I’m self-assured, I’m confident, and I don’t see why I should.’

Increasingly, though, states are taking a look at motorists like Wulfers, concerned that vision, reaction time and other driving skills have diminished. At least 22 states have laws singling out older drivers for special attention, and experts predict more as America grows grayer.

“It’s one of the emerging issues with the aging of America, keeping people both safe and mobile,’ says Bella Dinh-Zarr, national director of traffic safety policy for AAA. “But is legislation really the answer? No, because there’s not enough information.’

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Americans over 65 jumped 12 percent, to more than 35 million. According to the U.S. Census, the older population grew in every state. California, Florida and New York have the highest number of older drivers.

In California there are more than 5.5 million licensed drivers 55 and older; of them, 2.5 million are older than 70. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles offers special information and brochures for older drivers, on topics such as vision conditions

and fatigue. The DMV’s Web site ( points out that a by taking a DMV-approved mature driver improvement course, seniors can freshen their on-the-road skills and be eligible for a reduction of their auto insurance premiums.

Florida, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have the largest percentage of people over 65 — 17.6 percent, 15.6 percent and 15.3 percent, respectively.

Monitoring and assisting older drivers is an issue for every state, says DaCosta Mason, national coordinator of consumer issues for AARP. Unfortunately, he says, lawmakers often react to high-profile crashes without studying the science and seeking input from seniors.

“Research suggests that older persons are more likely to be involved in a crash,’ Mason says. “The problem is we don’t know at what age deterioration begins.’

Illinois and Rhode Island require road tests for drivers over 75 who want to renew their licenses, while 15 other states have an accelerated renewal schedule. At least five states have stopped mail-in renewals for older drivers.

The most common tool is vision testing. In Virginia, drivers over 80 started getting them July 1.

Mason says AARP questions the nature of vision tests and who’s conducting them, arguing physicians are more qualified than counter clerks. Most vision tests fail to measure contrast and peripheral vision, both of which could be factors in an accident.

AARP believes all drivers should be tested regularly and fully, but Mason says most cash-strapped states can’t afford it and single out the older driver.

Dinh-Zarr lists concerns about age-based testing. “What’s the right age? Is this the best use of resources? Who should do the testing?’

Several states prohibit the practice, including Nevada. “We’ve not really identified senior drivers as being a problem on the road,’ says Tom Jacobs of the Department of Motor Vehicles in Carson City. “Bad drivers come in all age groups, and there are good drivers out there who are 80 years old.’

Nevada allows older drivers to voluntarily restrict their licenses to road-tested routes so they can travel to religious services, the grocery store or relatives’ homes.

“A driver license in our country is a ticket to freedom. People are eager to get it and are very reluctant to give it up,’ Jacobs says.

Steve Dale, a spokesman for the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles, says lawmakers in his state won’t approve renewal vision tests for any driver, regardless of age. With little public transportation, they fear rural residents would be stranded.

West Virginia has a medical advisory board where relatives, doctors or police can refer drivers after an accident. The board decides whether to retest the driver and often orders a medical evaluation. About half of those referred lose their licenses.

“It’s one of the most unfortunate cases we deal with,’ Dale says.

Frank Morretti of The Road Information Program, a national nonprofit transportation research group, says older drivers tend to be aware of their limitations.

“They avoid rush hour. They avoid complex situations,’ he says. “They tend to avoid night driving if at all possible, and they tend to avoid driving at peak hours.’

Many will ask doctors whether they’re still fit to drive.

The American Medical Association, AAA and other safety groups have developed a physician’s guide to help answer the question. AAA is also developing a self-screening program that older drivers can use in their own home, with just a computer and a friend. Now in pilot testing, Dinh-Zarr says it should be ready for distribution next year.