Police seek ways to keep unsafe elderly from driving
In a recent presentation to the Dukes County Health Council, student researchers from the UMass Worcester Community Health program, on the Vineyard to study elderly healthcare issues, cited the concerns local police officers have about the risk to public safety posed by elderly drivers who have lost the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.
The researchers reported that the police are using a little-known "immediate threat" administrative action to get impaired senior drivers off Martha's Vineyard's roads.
Police officers may first notice unsafe driving by a senior resident of a community. Then, if a concerned relative, friend, or healthcare provider notifies the police of the potential danger, that will trigger the filing of an "immediate threat" license revocation request with the state's Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV), according to police officials.
"Usually there are a couple of incidents that we are aware of and then a family member comes in and tells us that an elderly parent, aunt or uncle, should be off the road," says Oak Bluffs police lieutenant Tim Williamson.
Upon receiving an "immediate threat" administrative action request from a police department, the RMV sends out a notice to the driver that within two weeks the driver's license will be revoked. The requesting police department is also notified that the revocation process has been started and local police officers may personally notify the senior that the process has been started.
In severe circumstances, when the RMV considers an elderly driver to be an immediate threat to the public safety, the driver's license can be automatically suspended and driving must stop immediately, according to the RMV's published regulations.
Physicians are required to notify the Registry if a patient's medical situation poses an immediate threat regardless of known incidents of unsafe driving, according to State Police Sgt. Neal Maciel. These reports will also initiate a revocation process at the RMV, but the local police department is not notified.
Drivers do have the right to request an administrative hearing. At that hearing the driver may present evidence refuting the immediate threat concerns, including documents provided by a physician.
However, according to police officials, more often than not the senior, upon receiving notification that the license is about to be revoked, fails to request a hearing. Revocation of the driver's license then takes place automatically.
"Most often, when I think a senior's driving is no longer safe I will ask the senior and family members to come into my office for a meeting," says West Tisbury Police Chief Beth Toomey. "I try to explain to the senior that the driving we have seen is unsafe, that continuing to drive places them and others at risk. If that doesn't work, I remind the senior that if they are in a bad accident they could end up losing their home. That usually does it," and the senior voluntarily turns over a driver's license.
Perhaps once every 30 to 45 days, a revocation process is initiated involving an elderly driver, according to Sgt. Maciel, who noted that he is seeing an increase in the number of revocation requests as the population ages. "We are even seeing 40- and 50-year-olds with Alzheimer's," he said.
On occasion the RMV may conduct a requested competency exam to evaluate the senior driver's skills. This one-hour exam includes three road tests and close scrutiny to ensure that the driver is in proper control of the vehicle, alert and still able to operate the vehicle properly, according to Sgt. Maciel.
"I would like to see seniors taking a refresher course," says Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain. Echoing those sentiments, Lieutenant Williamson added that "we need more testing after a certain age. Every five years is not enough."
If a driver voluntarily turns in a license (perhaps because of new health challenge) before the revocation process is initiated the driver may reapply for driving privileges at a later date when he or she is better able to operate the automobile.
"Then of course sometimes a family member will simply incapacitate the car, which brings an end to the driving," adds Chief Toomey.