Senior drivers need options, some say

By Ed Brock

There may be a time when 78-year-old Ola Dooley of Forest Park will no longer get behind the wheel of her 1995 Mercury Marquis.

"When I get where I can't think, I'm giving it up," Dooley said. "It would be really hard for me."

The question of when it's time for senior citizens to give up their driver's licenses has been brought to the forefront by Wednesday's incident in which 86-year-old Russell Weller barreled through a crowded market in Santa Monica while driving his 1992 Buick.

Nine people were killed in the accident and 45 others were injured and Los Angeles police are investigating the possibility of manslaughter charges against Weller.

Deciding when an older person is no longer fit to drive in Georgia is largely left to a medical advisory board, the state's Department of Motor Vehicle Safety spokeswoman Susan Sports said. A driver's license examiner can report someone they think has diminished capacity to the board and that person is then required to be examined by a doctor to determine his or her ability.

Family members can also report concerns to the board, Sports said.

"If you're a daughter and you're concerned about your father's driving and you can't steal the keys away from him, you can get a medical reference form," Sports said.

The board reviews about 1,500 cases a year and last year they suspended 306 licenses based on medical reasons such as heart conditions or the use of medication that may affect driving ability.

Eyesight is not a factor in the board's decision and is tested when renewing the license. Sports said people with Bioptic vision problems must be tested every two years. These are people who require special equipment more than just regular glasses to see while driving.

And the fact that Georgians can now renew their license via the Internet is not necessarily a problem, Sports said, since the driver who exercises that option is required to renew his or her license in person the next time it expires four years later.

So far there's been no discussion Sports knows of to enact a change in the state's existing policies on senior drivers.

Dooley said she has never gotten a ticket in her life, but she hopes that others will let her know when she needs to stop driving.

"I think we need to accept our family's advice," Dooley said.

But taking the keys away from a family member can be a horrifying experience, said Kathryn Lawler, project director of the Atlanta Regional Commission's Aging Atlanta program.

"I think that the real issue is that there are very few alternatives for people," Lawler said.

Just around 1 percent of the elderly population in the Atlanta area use public transportation, Lawler said. There were around 13,800 people over 65 living in Clayton County and 8,800 in Henry County, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

In surveys, most seniors expressed a need for flexibility in their public transportation, Lawler said, the ability of the system to get them where they need to go.

The Aging Division of Clayton County Parks and Recreation offers transportation through the Community Services Authority for seniors who don't drive, In-Home Service Supervisor Brenda Hall said. They offer them rides to the doctor, the grocery store and other necessary locations.

"It's real difficult (for seniors to stop driving). It's giving up their independence," Hall said. "If they can get away with it they'll drive a short distance even if they shouldn't be."

The issue will only get bigger, Lawler said, since the next few years are expected to see a massive growth in the number of seniors living in suburban areas due to ever increasing life expectancy.

"We'll see how this city is prepared to handle a cul-de-sac full of 85-year-olds," Lawler said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.