Elderly drivers: a community problem, or a knee-jerk reaction?


An 86-year-old man allegedly lost control of his car last Wednesday and plowed through a concourse of people at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, killing 10 and injuring more than 50 people. One of the 10 who were killed was Malibu resident Lynne Weaver. (See accompanying story.)

Many people who witnessed this tragedy could not believe their eyes; many thought it was a terrorist attack or an earthquake. No one expected that all this mayhem and bloodshed was the result of one elderly man.

The question now posed by many, and spawning a multitude of talks shows and stories on radio, television and in newspapers, is will stricter laws be written for elderly motorists?

Three years ago, former Sen. Tom Hayden (whose office was two blocks from the Farmers’ Market) proposed Senate Ballot 335, a measure which would have required drivers 75 years and older to be road tested every year in order to renew their driver’s licenses. Many senior citizen groups fought hard against the proposed bill, claiming it was biased against elderly drivers. A watered down version of the bill was passed. When a person reaches the age of 70, they must pass a written test and a vision test every five years in order to renew their license. No behind-the-wheel road test is required.

“Most of the people I know make use of the rules they have,” said Walter Keller, former Malibu mayor and vice president of the Malibu Senior Citizens Club. “And when someone is not able to drive anymore, they will give up driving. It is usually the people with the big egos who will continue to drive when they shouldn’t.”

If the laws were to change to make it more difficult for seniors to drive, Keller said, “I feel it is a nuisance, yet, necessary.”

To test, or not to test?

There are some occasions when a person older than 70 is required by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to be road tested.

“Sometimes, if the vision test is right on the borderline,” a DMV representative, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “a road test may be required.”

The DMV can also request a doctor’s approval in order to renew a license. And, by law, a doctor must report to the DMV if a patient has a disorder that would affect the their ability to drive safely.

“But doctors don’t always report their patient’s disorders,” the DMV representative said.

Even if there is a type of disorder that would hinder an elderly person’s driving abilities, their driving rights can be limited rather than revoked. For example, one may qualify for a restricted license that only permits driving during daylight hours, or a license that allows driving within 20 miles of one’s home.

There are other criteria that would be cause for the denial of driver’s license renewal.

According to the DMV handbook, ” … if a person’s vision is 20/200 or worse in your best eye, or a person is an alcoholic or addicted to certain drugs, has had lapses of consciousness within the past three years, or marked confusion or any physical or mental disorder that could affect the safety of their driving … “a license renewal will not be granted.

Also, a recent measure that was signed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2000 allows health practitioners and family members to raise concerns about a driver, under Vehicle Code SS 1808.5, Request for Driver Re-Examination.

Freedom curtailed

This tragedy touched a diverse cross-section of people spanning race, religion, age and gender. Not only has Santa Monica been affected by this tragedy, but all of Los Angeles has as well.

And now, the elderly are under attack, fighting to keep their freedom, but also wrestling with the reality of declining health and, therefore, the loss of abilities they once had in younger years.

In a recent press release from state Sen. Sheila Kuehl’s office, it was stated that the senator would begin reviewing the current state of the law regarding elderly drivers, and convene meetings, beginning immediately, to draft legislation to be introduced in December of this year.

Press deputy for Kuehl, Robin Podolsky, said in a phone interview, “First of all, the senator wants to offer support to the families of those who were killed and injured in this terrible tragedy. She feels heartbroken.”

However, Podolsky continued, “She wants to be aware not to have a knee-jerk reaction and will gather as much information from as many parties concerned so that there will never be a repeat of this kind of tragedy.”

Some cities, and even other countries (see Pam Linn’s column, page B1), have other outlets that seniors can rely on for transportation.

In 1991, when Keller was mayor, he helped to establish a service for seniors called Dial-A-Ride.

“It has been a great help,” Keller said. “Anyone can make use of it.”

In the meantime, it is left to family members and friends to try and prevent a possible tragedy from occurring at the hands of someone who should not behind the wheel of a car.

Here at the offices of The Malibu Times, almost everyone had a story to tell about their attempt in trying to stop an elderly father, mother or grandparent from driving.

Greg Koteles, who works as a production designer for The Malibu Times, recounted his recent experience with his grandmother, who was granted a limited license because she failed the DMV written test twice.

“About three months ago, my grandmother drove through the front window of a liquor store in North Hollywood. Instead of putting the car into reverse she put it [the car] into drive. The police never arrived and the damage was covered by her insurance.”

Koteles said his grandmother denied the accident was her fault.

“To this day, she says that something was wrong with her car.”

Fortunately for Koteles’ grandmother, and others, after the incident she stopped driving on her own.