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Study suggests more scrutiny of elderly drivers

A state council studying the effects of aging on driving says Florida should promote a
program to report motorists who should not be driving.

By Chuck McGinnes
Palm Beach Post

Florida should do more to promote a program that allows police, doctors and the public to report at-risk drivers, a committee studying the problem said in its initial report.

The group also recommends that senior citizens who pass a voluntary driving skills test receive a discount on their car insurance to cover the cost of the screening.

The two suggestions were among 31 included in the report, ''The Effects of Aging on Driving Ability,'' that the Florida At-Risk Driving Council presented to state lawmakers last week.

The 28-member council was created last October under a new law that requires drivers older than 79 to pass a vision test before renewing their license.

''It's just an indication of the complexity of the issue we're dealing with,'' said Lyn Bodiford, the council's vice chairman and AARP's state affairs coordinator. ``We've only just begun.''

Last year, 7,137 of the at-risk drivers reported to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles were retested for vision or driving skills or required to undergo a full medical evaluation. In some cases, driving privileges were revoked.

Others were restricted from driving at night or told to get new equipment, such as additional side mirrors or hand controls, if they wanted to continue driving.

Records relating to medical referrals are exempt from disclosure under the state's public records law. Forms to report at-risk drivers are available at driver license offices and on the department's website.

But there is no widespread advertising campaign.

''The problem has been a lot of people don't know about it,'' spokesman Robert Sanchez said.

A 45-day test project was conducted last year in the Jacksonville area to determine if increased publicity would result in more reports of at-risk drivers. State officials met with medical groups and law enforcement agencies to explain the process. Their findings are still being compiled.

''One of our highest priorities should be making sure law enforcement officers can identify someone who is an at-risk driver,'' Bodiford said. ``I think clearly that doesn't happen much of the time. It's an opportunity lost.''

Drivers can get a detailed assessment of their driving skills at Florida Atlantic University's Senior Safety Resource Center.

The center, which opened four months ago, tests only a handful of people a week because word about the service is still getting out in the community, said Ruth Tappen, the center's director and a member of the At-Risk Driving Council.

Some people cancel their appointments after learning Medicare will not cover the $275 cost of the screening, Tappen said.

The FAU center sees mostly drivers with memory disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease.

Statistics show that about 20 percent of Florida's 242,500 drivers who are 85 and older have a mild or moderate form of dementia.

''I've heard it over and over again at the Alzheimer summit that the rest of the nation will look at Florida on how to handle this issue,'' Tappen said.