How old is too old to drive?

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Is it time for Grandma to hang up the keys? An 86-year-old state senator says "maybe." That's why he's pushing for more frequent testing of older drivers -- a proposal that's already facing strong opposition from one powerful group.

When Cheryl Vorwald's father was killed, her daughter Paige was just three years old. She is 10 years old now.

"She talks about him a lot," Vorwald said.

Unlike her younger siblings, Paige has faint memories of her grandfather, whose life ended abruptly in January of 2007.

David Smith and his wife were walking out of Bed Bath & Beyond in Racine when a 2001 Toyota Echo blindsided them in the crosswalk.

"She put on the gas and hit my dad.  He hit the car, broke the windshield and fell, hit his head," Vorwald said.

Smith suffered a traumatic brain injury and died.

According to Vorwald, the 89-year-old driver who hit him kept on shopping.

"She shouldn`t have been driving," Vorwald said.

Vorwald is convinced that age played a role in the crash. So, for the past seven years, she's been urging state lawmakers to require more frequent testing of elderly drivers.

For the fourth time since Smith was killed, someone in Madison is trying to do just that.

"You may be capable one year, you may not be capable another," Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) said.

Sen. Risser is sponsoring a bill that would require drivers aged 75 and older to renew their licenses more frequently than everybody else -- once every four years, instead of every eight.

"Eight years is way too long," Sen. Risser said.

Of the states that do not have special provisions for older drivers, Wisconsin's eight-year renewal cycle remains the longest in the country.

"I definitely think there should be additional testing," Vorwald said.

A wrong-way driver sent motorists on I-43 into a panic when she headed south in the northbound lanes in 2012. She was 81 when this happened, and hadn't been to the DMV since she was 73.

"People change. Their eyes change. Their body changes in eight years time," Sen. Risser said.

Sen. Risser's bill would require a vision test every four years for older drivers, but it would not require any written or behind-the-wheel tests.

The bill was formally introduced on January 9th, and it's already facing stiff opposition from one influential group.

"We object to this bill because it singles out older people," Helen Marks Dicks with AARP Wisconsin said.

Dicks is a policy advocate for AARP Wisconsin.

"Younger drivers per mile driving have a lot worse driving record than older drivers," Dicks said.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says elderly drivers have among the lowest crash rates per licensed drivers of any age category, but that's largely because they drive less.

When adjusted on a per mile basis, crash rates rise dramatically after the age of 75.

However, Dicks says there's a better way of dealing with that.

"If Uncle Claude can`t drive because he`s nutty as a fruitcake, and can`t see, and he never wears his glasses, there`s a lot of things you can do to make sure he isn`t on the road," Dicks said.

Dicks points to Wisconsin's program for reporting medically-impaired drivers. It allows anyone to report a driver who has a medical condition and could pose a danger on the road.

However, a FOX6 Investigation found most referrals come from police officers after a driver has been involved in a crash.

"It is too late, because either that person has gotten hurt or someone else has gotten hurt," Vorwald said.

Studies on whether more frequent license renewals for older drivers would save lives have been inconclusive, but Vorwald and Dicks agree on one thing.

"I think there`s a problem with people not having the courage to look at friends, neighbors or relatives and saying to them, `I think you`re driving days should be limited,'" Dicks said.

"We need to watch them drive.  Be attentive to what`s going on.  Get behind the wheel with them to see how they`re doing," Vorwald said.

It is a matter of independence versus public safety.

The driver who struck Smith in Racine seven years ago is now 96.

Police did not file charges against her, but did refer her to the DMV to take a driving test. Instead, she says, her son talked her into giving up the keys for good.

Meanwhile, Sen. Risser's bill is expected to get a public hearing before the legislative session ends this spring.

6 comments

  • C Zachow

    Ms. Dicks obviously hasn’t tried her “approach” with any elderly drivers. If they don’t want to stop driving because they think they are fine nothing you can say will change that!

  • steve .k

    Sounds like Fred is throwing Grandma and Grandpa under the bus .What about the drunks and dope heads , the tweeters and young kids with a speed problem you see the wreck and say to yourself is that a car?? What about the heavily medicated drivers , hope the truck driver takes his heart medicine today before he gets in his 80,000 pound rig .

  • Fantasia

    I think every 4 yrs of testing is a great idea for 75 and over. As for the truck driver taking his meds before he drives his 80,000 # rig, they get tested every 6 months by a D.O.T certified doctor if their blood pressure is so much as an iota over the norm, (and up to every two yrs depending on their medical condition) and have to get a Federal Medical card saying they are fit to drive their 80,000# rig. People with heart problems are NOT considered fit to drive an 80,000# vehicle. I should know, I am a truck driver. Furthermore, they must log their hours of operation, have zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol or they lose their CDL for life, must not be on their cell phones at all (using a head-set is the only accepted method for communicating). Truck drivers have the strictest regulations out there, and they are continuing to get even stricter. The year 2014 will see even more change regarding drivers with medical issues. So please, don’t scare people with your ignorant statement about truckers. There are far more people out there who are un-fit to drive simply because they can’t keep their hands off their cell phones when they should keep their hands on the wheel, can’t keep their drunken (or druggie) butts from getting behind the wheel, because they are too irresponsible. IMO, the driving age should be the same as the drinking age. And even THAT is too young. Young people getting behind the wheel is scarier than a 75 and over person.

  • Nan Wan

    My 85 year old mother in law is required to have a vision test annually and a road test every 4 years in Illinois. She is very close to failing the eye test and should NOT be driving, but she is very stubborn and probably will continue to drive until she keels over.
    .

  • C.ro

    I believe people over 75 should get tested. For the safety of the community and my father, I had his driver’s license taken away. He was a menace on the road-sideswiping cars, actually hit a pedestrian (and blamed it on the guy, said the guy jumped on top of his car), driving 10-15mph on major thoroughfares where the speed limit was 35, during rush hour traffic, driving over curbs-stating they were moved. My father was unprepared to accept the fact that his vision, his judgment, his reaction times were all impaired. When I had him tested, the result was he had no business behind the wheel of a vehicle. When he received the letter in the mail, he was ticked off. As far as he was concerned he was not a danger. Even after the DMV told him he could not drive, he continued. We tried to accommodate him to take him wherever he needed to go but that was not good enough for him. He and I got into major arguments. I finally wrote him an anonymous letter telling him he would be reported to the police if we saw him driving. He was such a proud and independent man, raising 14 children, working his entire life, it was devastating for him to lose his last grip of independence. Eventually the car sat long enough for the battery to die and he couldn’t figure out how to open the hood-Thank God! My father is 87 and hasn’t driven in 2 years. I just wish there was early testing for diminished capacity. Yes, I agree teenagers can be a danger because of their “limited” capacity. But a teenager is able to gain that capacity with age whereas a senior has diminished capacity without the ability to regain and/or retain it.

  • Linda Bolin schauer

    Change it for everyone then you aren’t discriminating and singling out older drivers. I think 8 years is to long for everyone to wait. Just because your not 80 doesn’t mean you can’t acquire an impairment that might disqualify you from being eligible to drive

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