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OLDER-MOTORIST LIMITS SIDETRACKED.

Byline: Beth Barrett Staff Writer

Attempts to legislate tougher driving license renewal requirements for California's elderly drivers have repeatedly stalled, allowing the state's oldest drivers to stay behind the wheel without having to pass regular road tests.

The age of George Russell Weller, the 86-year-old man whose car crashed through a Santa Monica farmers market Wednesday, killing nine people and injuring more than 40, renewed debate over whether the current written and vision tests given drivers 70 and over every five years are adequate as more elderly people keep their licenses longer and drive more.

DMV spokesman Armando Botello said Weller had an excellent driving record and no medical or other conditions that could have been used as the basis for requiring him to take a road test. The state's Vehicle Code forbids ordering a driving test solely on the basis of age. Elderly drivers with a medical condition must renew their license by passing a written and vision test every year.

Former state Sen. Tom Hayden said his 1999 bill that would have required more testing of older drivers was diluted to replace the age-specific language with references to at-risk drivers before it was signed into law.

Hayden said Wednesday that his legislation, known as the Senior Driver Bill, was meant to recognize the inevitable slowing of reactions and other impairments that go along with age by requiring additional testing.

``The issue was, why was there no behind-the-wheel test required after a certain age,'' Hayden said. ``People between 70 and 100 remain on the road without ever being tested behind the wheel again despite overwhelming evidence our reflexes slow.''

A November 2002 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study, based on U.S. Department of Transportation figures, found that elderly people have ``higher rates of fatal crashes than all but the youngest drivers, especially per mile driven.''

In part, the report said, the fatality rate is due to older people's increased frailty.

Hayden's measure was opposed by some senior citizens groups, and its defeat was hailed nationally by senior advocacy groups as a victory.

Only two states, Illinois and New Hampshire, require road tests for people 75 or older, according to the Insurance Institute.

Hayden said politicians have yet to show they have the political will to end the disparity between the ``relatively harsh penalties on teenagers and an absolute laissez faire attitude toward older voters who vote.''

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, said she intends to review the legislation and to talk to seniors groups, but that she's personally reluctant to base stricter license testing on age.

``Before you target any minority on the basis of characteristics, to make a fair law there has to be a good fit,'' Kuehl said. ``One or even six accidents doesn't quite do it. I'd rather work something out with senior groups, rather than spring something on them.''

Local AARP officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The organization is active in promoting older-driver safety programs.

Most elderly drivers are on the road far less than younger drivers, and also tend to limit their driving to stay within their capabilities, such as driving during the day and avoiding freeways, said California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Anne Da Vigo.

``Generally older drivers are safer than other drivers, mostly because they limit their driving,'' Da Vigo said. ``They drive in places they're comfortable, where they know the route.''

Beth Barrett, (818) 713-3731

beth.barrett(at)dailynews.com
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 17, 2003
Words:573
Previous Article:AGED DRIVER 'WOULD NOT ... HURT ANYONE'.
Next Article:PUBLIC FORUM SLAVERY CONTINUES.


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