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.
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
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
"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
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.
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,
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
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.