Wednesday’s auto accident involving Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon and an 84-year-old driver serves as another reminder that the older we get the more careful we have to be behind the wheel. It also should renew calls for more frequent vision tests and behind-the-wheel exams for elderly drivers, particularly in light of the fact that our population is aging, with estimates that there will be 9.6 million people 85 and older by 2030.

While the exact cause of the accident has yet to be released, one could argue that age was a factor. Normal aging causes medical problems that affect driving. Reflexes, flexibility, visual acuity, memory and the ability to focus all decline with age. Medicines that treat various ailments also make it more difficult to focus and make snap decisions. Elderly drivers are less likely than other drivers to be in crashes involving high speeds or alcohol, but they are more likely to crash at intersections where they turn left in front of oncoming traffic or miss a stop sign. In the Witherspoon accident, the driver failed to see the actress as she jogged in an unmarked crosswalk.

Fatality rates for drivers begin to climb after age 65, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, based on data from 1999-2004. From ages 75 to 84, the rate of about three deaths per 100 million miles driven is equal to the death rate of teenage drivers. For drivers 85 and older, the fatality rate skyrockets to nearly four times higher than that for teens.

While teens have been the target of lawmakers in the form of increased restrictions, elderly drivers have not thanks in large part to well-financed and powerful advocacy groups like the AARP, which boasts more than 35 million members nationwide. The Daily Press feels it is time to address the issue.

Currently, the only power the Department of Motor Vehicles has is to require those over 70 to renew their driver’s license in person every five years. Elderly drivers are only required to take a written exam and have their vision checked. The DMV can place restrictions — limiting the times people can drive and the distance — on elderly drivers when they are made aware of certain medical conditions, but that does not go far enough. The law should be changed to require behind-the-wheel driving tests so that DMV employees can see if there are any limitations. We admit that research has shown it is difficult to establish an “early warning system,” and that even those are unreliable when it comes to predicting who will crash and who won’t, but it’s worth further study.

By requiring driving tests annually for seniors of a certain age (we think 70 is a good number), not only would DMV employees be better equipped when determining whether or not to enact restrictions, but so will the drivers themselves. Representatives with the AARP, which, along with the DMV, offers a driver safety program and tips for seniors, said most elderly drivers recognize their limitations and begin to self regulate by driving less at night or choosing to not take freeways. More than 600,000 drivers age 70 and older decide to give up driving each year, according to a 2002 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. That’s great, but then there are those who see giving up their car keys as a form of imprisonment and an erosion of their independence. These folks hold on to their cars far longer than they should, creating the potential for a serious accident.

Unfortunately, Santa Monica knows that all too well. Those who lived here in 2003 will never forget the tragic Farmers’ Market crash involving George Russell Weller, then 86, who drove his Buick Le Sabre into a crowded market, killing 10 and injuring more than 70. His attorneys argued that Weller had confused his car’s accelerator for the brake. He was convicted of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and sentenced to five years probation after the judge ruled he was too ill to be imprisoned.

That tragedy may have been avoided had Weller been required to take a driving test when he renewed his license in November 2000. Lawmakers need to act, and hopefully Witherspoon’s fame will keep this issue in the public eye. Something must be done before Baby Boomers become octogenarians. Unfortunately, knowing how slow the wheels of government turn, it might just take that long.

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