Surrendering a driver's license is difficult for the elderly - RMV offers guidelines for older drivers
A driver's license often represents an elderly person's last vestige of independence. It's a most difficult privilege to relinquish. Giving up a license may mean fewer trips outside the home, dependency on others for transportation, becoming a burden to others, and fewer social opportunities.
Older drivers may express strong emotions when someone talks to them about their driving, according to the "Family Conservations with Older Drivers" section on the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles Web site. The section notes that when older adults were asked about their driving, nearly one-quarter of them reported feeling sad or depressed as a result of the conversation, and less than 10 percent responded with anger.
The motor vehicle registry has no special requirements for elderly drivers. Every driver has to renew a license every five years and take an eye test every 10 years, and until last week there was no written test, according to Ann Dufresne, senior communications adviser at the registry.
Ms. Dufresne acknowledged that it's difficult for people to give up a driver's license. "The older ones know how valuable the license is," she said.
That's why the state registry has a section on its web site called "Mature Drivers," which includes much information and many services for seniors and their families to help them make the decision of giving up their license.
"We ask seniors to evaluate their driving skills. They self-regulate," Ms. Dufresne said, noting that many elderly drivers voluntarily don't drive at night or in bad weather. "They're very safety conscious."
The state registry's 2006 statistics on "crashes" by age group bear that out, showing that drivers 60 and older actually have a lower percentage of crashes, about 3 percent on average, than younger drivers. They also have a much lower number of licensed drivers, dropping from just over 315,000 in the 60- to 64-year-old group to 50,347 of 65-year-olds.
The rate of crashes decreases according to age, with the highest rate of 18 percent among the youngest drivers, 16 to 19 years old. The crash rates are 9 percent for drivers in their early 20s, and continue to decrease incrementally to 4 percent for drivers in their late 50s.
The motor vehicle registry has several means of monitoring older drivers, particularly through its medical affairs bureau, Ms. Dufresne said. Since Massachusetts is a self-reporting state, it means it is the individual's responsibility to report to the registry any medical condition that may affect his or her ability to drive.
A brochure available on the registry web site, www.mass.gov/rmv, lists regulations on minimum physical abilities necessary for all licensed drivers. The list includes guidelines for arthritis, vision, hearing, loss of consciousness, mental abilities, and drugs and alcohol.
For example, with arthritis, which affects many older people, the guideline notes that the condition can affect one's driving abilities, such as turning the head and neck for checking traffic, reaching the brake pedal quickly in an emergency, and adjusting rear and side mirrors. The listing suggests that if people are not sure whether they can move fast enough, they should see their doctor or consider taking a driving evaluation at an outpatient rehabilitation center.
The site lists 12 locations for driving evaluation programs around the state. The closest one to Martha's Vineyard is at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Cape and Islands in East Sandwich. The Automobile Association of America, AARP, and the Central Massachusetts Safety Council also offer mature driver programs.
The state has no legal requirement for a physician or other interested party to report a possible unfit driver to the registry, but if an interested party chooses to report such a driver, the registry will act on the information, according to a procedure available from the registry offices. The registry's medical affairs division will accept reports of complaints from family members, physicians, law enforcement or other interested third parties, including, but not limited to members of the individual's community, private driving schools, or physical therapists.
Lt. Tim Williamson of the Oak Bluffs Police Department described one action the police take when an elderly person gets into an accident and they believe is related to age. The police file an immediate threat affidavit with the state registry, which issues an administrative suspension, he said. The person involved can request a hearing for a possible reinstatement of the license.
After receiving a medical report, the medical affairs branch conducts an individualized assessment of the reported individuals' qualifications to operate a motor vehicle safely, based on a physician's medical evaluation. The branch can then take appropriate action.
Possible actions include a request that the individual take a competency road examination and/or an assessment for adaptive equipment, request a voluntary surrender of the license, or take no action. A person can get a license back if he or she shows documentation that a medical condition has improved.
If a person does not comply with the registry's request to voluntarily surrender the license, the driver control unit will schedule a hearing on the matter, which could result in the license being indefinitely revoked.
The registry's series of questions and tips under "Family Conversations with Older Drivers" provided by The Hartford insurance company is intended to help families and others approach older adults about their driving skills. Suggested conversation openers include statements following a narrowly avoided accident, such as "That was a close call yesterday. I worry about your safety on the road." The section includes many thoughtful suggestions on how to deal with concerns and even ways to persuade a driver to give up his or her license.
The mature drivers section also includes several other links to help elders assess their driving. See the adjoining Safe Driver Warning List for other suggestions.
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