There is a fast-growing number of elderly drivers in the Washington, D.C., area and increasing debate over whether stiffer licensing rules and testing should be ordered because of it, according to a review by the News4 I-Team.
At least 386 people older than of 100 are licensed to drive in Virginia and Maryland, according to state motor vehicle records the I-Team obtained and analyzed. More than 250,000 licensed local drivers are older than 80.
Families of victims of accidents involving elderly drivers have lobbied Maryland and Virginia to pass legislation reducing the time period between license renewals for senior citizens. Virginia’s proposal, which was recently approved by the state legislature and will take effect in January, will shrink from eight years to five years the time between license renewals for drivers over the age of 75.
Similar Maryland legislation wasn’t approved before the end of the state’s legislative session in March.
- Licensed Virginia Drivers 80 and Older: 184,854
- Licensed Virginia Drivers 100 and Older: 242
- Licensed Maryland Drivers 85 and Older: 62,424
- Licensed Maryland Drivers 100 and Older: 144
David Morrell, whose son, Darren, was killed in a crash involving an 85-year-old driver in Oakton, Va., in 2010, was among the chief advocates of Virginia’s licensing changes.
“Darren was on his motorcycle and never had a chance,” Morrell said. “(The driver) did not look. He did not know he hit Darren. People on the street had to stop him from leaving the scene.”
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration databases show the percentage of fatal accidents involving drivers over the age of 65 has increased 20 percent since 2003, twice as fast as fatal accidents involving younger drivers.
Adjusting driving and licensing rules for seniors has been both complicated and delicate. Washington, D.C.-area representatives of transportation and safety groups argue age alone is not a determining factor of a driver’s skill
“I think it's important for people of any age to brush up on their driving skills, and it's not just seniors,” said Ralph Rosenthal, a Virginia-based driving instructor for AARP. Age itself is not a determinant (of driving ability).”
John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said some risk factors are more common among the elderly.
“A lot of older people are on prescription medicine,” he said. “(Medicine and driving) can be a toxic mix depending on which drugs, prescriptions you're taking."
Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration administers a series of tests, some of which are computer-based, for senior drivers or those with compromised cognitive skills. The exams, which are administered at local MVA offices, include tests of memory, peripheral vision and reflexes. In some cases, agency staff will order additional road tests for drivers whose performance and diminishing skills raise concerns. But the tests are only ordered for drivers referred to the MVA by law enforcement or family or by drivers who have concerns about their own declining ability.
The agency also requires vision testing for license renewals for drivers over the age of 40.
“We all have to plan for retirement from driving,” said Dr. Carl Soderstrom, director of the Maryland MVA’s medical advisory board. “Many of us will outlive our ability to drive a car by seven to 10 years.”
Susan Cohen, whose son Nathan was killed after being hit by an elderly driver in Baltimore in 2011, lobbied Maryland state legislators to lower the period between license renewals for seniors, a renewal period than can be as long as eight years. The proposal has not been approved by lawmakers.
Cohen said the driver who ran over her son showed signs of declining driving abilities. After the accident, Cohen said, "(The driver) got out of the car, left it running and sat on a wall. She didn't notify people that she had an injured person under car. It was a preventable accident. She could have checked her blind spot.”