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Wisconsin seniors might face regular license exams

By Larry Sandler
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin's oldest drivers would have to face regular tests to keep their licenses, under a bill that has won support from the state's key aging organizations, state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee) said Wednesday.

Proposed Provisions
Under the proposed bill, drivers ages 75 to 84 would be required to pass vision tests every three years. Drivers 85 and older would be required to pass vision tests and written driving exams every two years. Licenses still would be good for eight years, but would be suspended for anyone who failed a test or refused to take one.

The Assembly Transportation Committee was to vote this week on a compromise that Wasserman worked out with those groups after an earlier version of his legislation drew heated opposition.

Under the latest form of the bill, drivers would be required to pass vision tests every three years from 75 to 84, and to pass both vision tests and written driving exams every two years from 85 on, Wasserman said. Licenses would still be good for eight years but would be suspended for anyone who failed a test or refused to take one, he said.

To pay for the increased testing of older drivers, Wasserman's bill would increase fees for drivers who fail road tests at any age. Currently, drivers pay $15 for a road test, but those who flunk the first test can take two more tests within six months for free. This legislation would levy $15 fees for every test.

The issue of older drivers' abilities has been sharply debated in legislative chambers and over kitchen tables. Statistics show that drivers older than 75 crash more often than everyone but teenagers. But in this automobile-oriented society, many older drivers fear they would lose their independence if they give up their car keys.

Last summer, an 86-year-old man drove his car into a crowded farmers' market in Santa Monica, Calif., killing 10 people and injuring dozens. A few months later, an 85-year-old Cedar Grove woman died in a head-on collision while driving the wrong way on I-43 in Port Washington.

Dementia, vision concerns
One of the drivers who would be affected by the proposed Wisconsin legislation is also one of its co-sponsors: Rep. J.A. "Doc" Hines (R-Oxford). At 76, he's the oldest member of the Legislature.

Hines said one of the most convincing arguments in favor of the bill came from the Wisconsin arm of the Alzheimer's Association. In a letter to Wasserman, association lobbyist Rob Gundermann said studies show that 47% of people older than 85 have dementia.

"We can't rely on physicians and family members to report unsafe drivers," because they're afraid they'll damage their relationships with the drivers, Gundermann wrote. Hines and Wasserman said they've heard similar comments from others.

"We need to leave it in the hands of the people whose business it is to decide who's fit to drive," Hines said.

Wasserman, a physician, said he introduced the bill partly at the urging of eye doctors who told him their patients' sight was deteriorating in the eight years between license renewals.
Among those doctors was Kevin Flaherty, a Wausau ophthalmologist who told of a 99-year-old patient with a license that will be valid until she turns 105.

"I really do have a grave concern" about the eyesight of older drivers, whose vision can change dramatically in a year or two, Flaherty said.

Although Wisconsin is one of 28 states without special restrictions on older drivers, it is the only one of those states with an eight-year license renewal period, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But approval of the bill is by no means certain, Hines said. He said he had received more emotional comments, both pro and con, on this legislation than on any other measure, including the concealed weapons bill that could face a veto override vote in the Assembly soon.

"Some people feel it's a God-given right to drive as long as they can crawl behind the wheel, or someone can put them there," Hines said.

Sensitive issue
In the past, many lawmakers wouldn't touch similar measures because they feared offending older constituents, a powerful voting bloc. That's why it's crucial that this legislation has the backing of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups and AARP Wisconsin as well as the Alzheimer's Association, Hines said.

The coalition opposed the original version of Wasserman's bill, said its executive director, Tom Frazier.

That version would have required more frequent license renewals - at ages 75, 78 and 80, then every two years until age 95 and every year after that, with road tests from age 80 and older as well as vision tests. Road tests also would have been required for anyone older than 75 with a moving violation. And older drivers would have paid higher license fees than younger drivers.

The current legislation removes what Frazier called the most onerous requirements on older drivers.

It also calls for two studies that aging groups wanted: a five-year look at how the law is working and a two-year review of how Wisconsin's entire transportation system, both roads and public transit, can be improved to better meet the needs of older residents, Frazier and Wasserman said.

Wasserman estimated those studies would cost about $150,000, in addition to the estimated $100,000 cost of additional tests for older drivers. But boosting fees for retesting drivers of all ages would raise about $500,000, leaving about $250,000 for other transportation programs, he said.

The Transportation Committee will consider the bill at 8:30 a.m. today in Room 417-North of the state Capitol.