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Oregon to expand impaired driver reporting system

By Charles E. Beggs
Statesman-Journal (Salem)

SALEM – The Oregon DMV says a new impaired-driver-reporting system is working without hitches in 13 counties and is on track to be extended statewide by summer.

The program is an expanded effort to get people off the roads who aren’t fit to drive because of physical or mental impairments due to aging or other causes.

For years, doctors have been required to report to Driver and Motor Vehicle Services when patients have afflictions that could make them unsafe drivers. The agency can suspend driver’s licenses in such cases.

But some officials and physicians considered the old reporting law outdated and too narrow because it required reports only when a patient had suffered lapses of consciousness or control, DMV spokesman David House said.

House said the old rule sometimes caused doctors to make reports based on temporary, passing conditions, while the law ignored other problems that could make drivers unsafe.

Reporting criteria changed June 1, based on a law passed in 2001 and on recommendations from a panel of experts.

Physicians and some other health-care providers now will be required to report to the DMV any severe and uncontrollable physical or mental impairments that make drivers unsafe.

The changes take medical advances into account by allowing a driver to avoid a license suspension if there is a way to correct or control an impairment.

A phase-in of the new system put 13 counties, mostly in Southern and Central Oregon, under the revised reporting requirements by Dec. 31.

The change took effect Monday in six Willamette Valley and coastal counties and will apply statewide June 1.

House said 435 medical reports had been received under the new standards as of Monday, which he said wasn’t an unexpectedly large number.

The most common impairments cited are for judgment, reaction time, memory and vision problems.

The DMV mails license suspension notices to drivers, who can ask for testing at a DMV office and regain their licenses if they pass.

Of the reports, House said, 57 percent involve drivers older than 70.

A study released last month by the national AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety said drivers older than 65 are more likely to get into crashes because of declining perception and motor skills.

But the Oregon study committee took pains to avoid designating age alone as a criteria for re-evaluating drivers.

The study was created by lawmakers in 1999 from a bill that would have required drivers older than 80 to renew licenses every two years — instead of four — and take driving and vision tests and receive medical approval to drive.

Lawmakers scrapped that idea after loud protests from lobbying groups for seniors.

The new system takes into account “that people age differently,” House said.

He said drivers as young as 19 have had their licenses suspended for impairments.