By Sarah Karush
May 7, 2007
The D.C. Council is considering legislation that would ease a driver’s license renewal policy for older motorists.
The city’s Department of Motor Vehicles a year ago began requiring drivers 75 and older to pass a road test and written exam, making the District’s regulation of older drivers among the most stringent in the country.
Among the states, only Illinois and New Hampshire require road tests for older drivers upon renewal of their licenses. No other jurisdiction requires written tests.
After a barrage of complaints, the council began considering a bill that would prohibit the DMV from requiring the tests exclusively on the basis of age.
“It’s an insult for people like me who have an extremely clean record,” says Giuseppe Morra, 80, a retired World Bank employee. Mr. Morra says he has been involved in just one minor accident in the three decades he’s been driving in the District and that years have passed since he received a ticket. His renewal tests are due in August.
The bill to change the D.C. policy, introduced in March, would leave in place the requirement that drivers 70 and older appear in person to renew their licenses, to take a reflex test and an eye exam and submit documentation from a physician that they are able to drive.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, has not taken a public position on the measure. But 10 of the 13 council members have shown support, which would be enough to override a veto.
States have been tightening rules on older drivers after a series of highly publicized accidents in recent years. In February, an 84-year-old woman plowed through an elementary-school lunchroom in Illinois, killing an 8-year-old boy. In 2003, a car driven by an 86-year-old man hurtled through a farmers market in downtown Santa Monica, Calif., killing 10 persons and injuring more than 70 others.
The District has not seen a high-profile accident involving an older driver. Acting DMV Director Lucinda Babers says the agency chose to act before a tragedy strikes.
“We’re not going to wait until there’s a horrific accident and then wring our hands and say, ‘There was nothing we could have done,’ ” she says.
In the District and elsewhere, officials are bracing for an increase in elderly drivers as baby boomers age.
Looking for a way to address the issue in the District, motor vehicles officials discovered a decades-old municipal law that allows the agency to require drivers older than 75 to take the road test and the written test on renewal every five years. The agency began requiring that in May 2006.
“To have this additional burden imposed on our ability to move freely is, I think, unconscionable,” D.C. resident Tom Leary testified at a recent hearing.
The AARP and AAA say the agency is discriminating against the elderly.
In Maryland and Virginia, a justified complaint from anyone can trigger a review by a medical panel and result in a license being revoked or driving privileges restricted.
“I have an opinion that we should test people based on medical concerns, not based on age,” says Dr. Carl A. Soderstrom, chief of the medical advisory board of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
Dr. Soderstrom, who testified about the Maryland system at the D.C. Council hearing, says most older drivers self-regulate.
“The overwhelming majority of drivers, as parts wear out, do what’s necessary — stop driving at night, avoid busy roads,” he says.
Mrs. Babers says many drivers say privately they are relieved the government is doing something about the issue. Since March 1, 150 of 2,507 older drivers had failed road test, she says. The test can be taken up to three times in a year. Drivers have as many chances as they need for the written test, and only a handful have failed.
Anne McCartt, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says some evidence shows that requiring older drivers to appear in person to renew their licenses reduces crashes. She says the road-test requirement is reasonable. “Drivers of any age who don’t do as well on road tests are probably at a higher risk of crashing.”
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